National Train Your Brain Day is observed annually on October 13. The observance was created to encourage all of us to exercise our brain and improve our cognitive skills. Doing word puzzles and number games, playing Bridge and reading are every-day activities that are good for the brain. But there are many other things you can do.
- Dance as though no one is watching. My book “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s and Dementia” includes a 21-year-long study that was summarized in an article that appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2003. The study found that when compared to 11 other activities including team sports, swimming and bicycling, dancing is the best activity for supporting cognition and staving off mental decline. In fact, the more complex the dance, the better it is for enhancing problem-solving skills and memory. You don’t have to be a great dancer. Just put on your favorite dance music and let loose in your living room. Or, find a dance partner and learn how to salsa, tango, or swing.
- Play an instrument. Numerous studies have indicated that listening to music and playing an instrument can reduce anxiety and depression and support cognitive functioning. Playing an instrument sharpens your concentration, boosts listening skills, and supports your time management and organizational skills. The efficacy of music therapy A Study done at the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and led by Nina Kraus, shows that musicians suffer less from aging-related memory and hearing losses than non-musicians. It is believed to be the first study to provide biological evidence that lifelong musical experience has a good impact on the aging process. Kraus says the research shows that playing an instrument helps hearing and memory, which is among the most common complaints from normal aging.
- Exercise! Dr. Monika Fleshner, researcher/professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and contributor to “Calmer Waters,” has spent her career showing that exercise is vital to reducing stress and supporting healthy mental function. “Physically active individuals are stress robust,” says Fleshner. “They demonstrate both stress resistance and stress resilience.” Exercise seems to buffer many of the deleterious consequences of stress, including poor memory. Scientists have also found that exercise encourages the growth of new brain cells in the hippocampus, the area that is crucial to memory and learning.
- Say it out loud. When I meet someone for the first time, I inevitably look in the person’s eyes and don’t even listen to their spoken name. As a result, I rarely remember the person’s name. Next time, I will heed the expert advice of repeating the person’s name. This is considered the easiest way to remember everything from where you put your keys to your grocery list. Say it out loud to yourself, or mouth the words, in order to remember quickly.
- Get a good night’s sleep. According to a study published in the journal Neuroscience (June 30, 2005) sound sleep triggers changes in the brain that help to improve memory. New memories are formed within the brain when a person engages with information to be learned (for example, memorizing a list of words or mastering a piano concerto). However, these memories are initially fragile. In order to “stick” they must be solidified and improved. This process of “memory consolidation” occurs when connections between brain cells as well as between different brain regions are strengthened, and for many years was believed to develop merely as a passage of time. More recently, however, it has been demonstrated that time spent asleep also plays a key role in preserving memory. So, do your best to work on sleep hygiene. Unplug at least an hour before bed, soak in tub filled with Epsom salts, play soothing music, make sure the room is not too warm, etc. And, never go to bed mad.
- Doodle. In memory tests, doodlers performed 29% better than non-doodlers when asked to recall names and places, Experts say doodling doesn’t tax the mind and allows us to concentrate on the task at hand. It stops us daydreaming, too, which is distracting. The same theory holds for coloring in the beautiful new adult coloring books that have become popular the past several years.
- Learn something before bed. If you want to consolidate a memory go through the information right before you fall asleep. You’ll have few, if any, interfering memories so you’ll remember it the next day.
- Feed your neurotransmitters. These are the chemicals that allow your neurons to talk to one another. They are vital to memory, focus, learning, energy and happiness. Acetylcholine is the primary carrier of thought and memory, and if you don’t have enough of this important neurotransmitter, you will probably have memory and cognitive problems. For healthy acetylcholine production, make sure you’re getting the nutrients that it is made from. Dr. Dharma Singh Khalsa, author of Brain Longevity (Warner Books, Inc. 1997) and the president and medical director of the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation in Tucson, Arizona, suggests supplementing with choline, which is present in high amounts in lecithin. Lecithin is available in capsule, granule, liquid, tablet and powder form. The recommended therapeutic dose is 2500 to 3000 mg. four times a day, for a total daily dose of 10,000 to 12,000 mg. In addition, it’s important to take 1000 mg. vitamin C, three times a day, along with 100 mg. of B5, which are needed to transform lecithin into acetylcholine. It’s also advisable to take B6 and zinc, which help in the synthesis of acetylcholine. The nutrient DMAE (dimethylaminoethanol) helps build acetylcholine levels. It is present in your brain in small quantities, and is also found in seafoods, including sardines. Since it is stimulating to the central nervous system, Dr. Khalsa suggests starting out with a low dose of about 40 mg. twice a day, and building up to 200 mg. daily, if you don’t feel overstimulated.