8 Ways to Train Your Brain

Intelligence of the human brain

Intelligence of the human brain

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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. 

 

 

 

 

 

5 Ways to get into the Zen of Caregiving

purity of the zen massageI have caregiver burnout. I cared for my husband, who had Alzheimer’s disease, for 10 years. Before that I flew back and forth from Colorado to Florida whenever one of my parents had a health crisis (which was frequent). My daughter just had a baby, and I’d love to be there for her, but my mother has pneumonia and congestive heart failure. I am torn between helping my daughter and her beautiful, young family, and my elderly failing mother. I am flying to Florida for a few days and then back to Colorado. And I will probably be doing this again in the coming month. I tell myself, “you need to take care of yourself. You need to keep your head above water.” Easier said than done. But I learned a lot during the course of my husband’s illness. I know how important it is to meditate, do yoga, dance and eat and sleep well.

Caregiving is a huge challenge, and it’s very easy to let the responsibility of caring for an ill friend or relative become a yoke around one’s neck. But with practice and mindfulness it can turn into a spiritual practice. How?

  1. When you wake up in the morning let your first thought be, “I’m going to have a great day. It will be filled with joy and laughter, and I will maintain equanimity.” Be grateful for your ability to see, hear, walk, and serve your loved one. Other affirmations that you might like: I will remain calm and present throughout the day. I welcome peace, trust, and acceptance into my life. I’m feeling strong and healthy today. I am a kind, compassionate caregiver.
  2. Instead of reacting with anxiety or impatience to a stressful situation or annoying behavior such as constant complaining, asking the same question repeatedly, pacing up and down the hall, stop and breathe. Take a deep breath and let it out slowly. Do it again, and again. Now stop and ask yourself how you feel? Not too bad. Stretch your arms straight up towards the ceiling. Lower them and do it again, one at a time. Roll your head gently to the right and then to the left, and then slowly in a circle. Look to your right, center and then to the left. Take another deep breath and let it out slowly. Feel your body relax.
  3. Focus on the present. Instead of worrying about taking your loved one to a doctor’s appointment and anticipating how he or she will react or what news you will hear, put your attention on something beautiful—inside your home or out the window. If the sky is blue, appreciate its beauty. Listen to the birds singing and appreciate the miracle of their song. Look at a painting on the wall and really look at the colors, the brush strokes, and the image. Imagine the spark that inspired the artist during the creative process, and let it inspire you to get through the day while maintaining a positive outlook.
  4. Light a candle and have your care partner sit down next to you. Enjoy the glow, letting it calm your nerves. Match your breathing to your care partner’s and find your peace.
  5. Keep a journal. It’s a wonderful, easy way to get your concerns, fears, hopes, and dreams out without relying on your therapist or best friend. Use a writing prompt to get you going such as “I never thought. . . . It’s so hard to . .. “I’ll always remember . . .

These are just a few things that can ease the stress of caregiving. Have courage; find strength from the simple things.

The loneliness of caregiving: How to stay socially connected

Closeup of old woman hands holding mobile phone

Woman with mobile phone

My husband had younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease. The hardest thing for me during the duration of his illness was that I lost my companion. He was the person I made important decisions with. The person I went to movies with, ate dinner with, had interesting conversations with, traveled with, and shared delight with over the accomplishments of our children. He was the one I could complain to if I had a headache, stomach ache, or sore throat, without worrying about being called a hypochondriac or a baby. He was also the person who always cheered me on when I succeeded in achieving my goals.

When it came time to make the decision to move him to a memory care home, I especially missed having him help me decide on which room he’d live in, what type of furniture to buy, and the mattress he would sleep on. When it came time to bury him, it was agonizing for me to choose the plot of land where he would be laid to rest, and where I will be eventually interred.

During my many years of caregiving, I would often hide behind a mask of cheerfulness. It helped. I didn’t feel like a prisoner because I hired people to take my husband out to see a movie. Several of his friends kindly took him to lunch on a regular basis. It takes an effort to maintain friends and to stay socially involved, especially if you no longer work outside the home.

I promised myself that I wouldn’t let my husband’s disease ruin my life. I kept an active calendar filled with dance classes, lunches with friends, and even pursued a certificate in nutrition–all the while he was ill.

But it took planning and some might think I was a bit selfish. But when you look at the grand picture of caregiving, taking care of your personal needs is anything but being selfish. Studies show that 40 to 70 percent of family caregivers experience symptoms of clinical depression. One of the reasons, besides the daily stress, is isolation and loneliness.

Now for the lecture part: If you are a caregiver it is vital that you maintain a social network. Here are some ideas:

  • Stay connected with friends and family either through Facebook or another social media outlet, or by telephone or email, etc.
  • Make a lunch date with a friend at least once a week.
  • Many places of worship offer support for caregivers and families, including social events.
  • Go to a class—any kind of class: knitting, dance, weight training.
  • Join a support group—The Alzheimer’s Association offers classes and workshops for caregivers and for the person with memory loss.
  • Ask your friends and family for respite care. Have someone come over for a couple of hours a week so you can at least get out for a walk or go grocery shopping.
  • Go to the movies with a friend. It’s a great way to escape into another world for a few hours.
  • Call a best friend who is happy to talk; call someone who makes you laugh–laughter is truly the best medicine.
  • Bring your loved one to a Memory Cafe/Alzheimer’s Cafe. The challenges of living with memory loss can sever social connection at a time when it is needed most. Throughout the US and Europe, this casual social meeting is for caregivers and their care partner (the person they are caring for). Memory Cafes offer a way to socialize, explore art, music, poetry and listen to discussions and presentations. A Dutch psychologist opened the firs Memory Cafe in Holland. today there are about 200 Memory Cafes in the U.S.
  • Chat online with other caregivers. The Alzheimer’s Association offers chat rooms and so does the American Cancer Society. Check Elder Care Online for chat room and caregiver forum links. ElderCare Online’s Caregiver Support Network brings together online resources, groups and experts to create a virtual community dedicated to improving quality of life for you and your loved ones.

Drink green tea for health and relaxation

Green tea has been in the news again lately. A new study has found that green tea extract prevents the formation of amyloid plaque—believed to be one of the primary causes of Alzheimer’s disease—and breaks down existing clumps of the proteins in amyloid. Numerous studies have also found evidence that green tea extract can help fight everything from glaucoma to prostate cancer and leukemia.

But did you know that green tea contains an amino acid called L-theanine, which is fabulous for promoting relaxation? It seems contradictory since 8 ounces of green tea contains about 76 mg. of caffeine (a cup of coffee contains 104-192 mg of caffeine), but research with human volunteers has shown that L-theanine:

• Creates a sense of relaxation approximately 30-40 minutes after oral ingestion1

• Stimulates production of alpha brain waves, causing a state of deep relaxation and mental alertness, much like the state achieved during meditation2

• Plays a role in the formation of the inhibitory neurotransmitter gamma amino butrylic acid (GABA)—which blocks release of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin3

Increases Mental Acuity

Theanine was given to male rats for four months in order to investigate its effect on memory and learning ability. Rats, by nature, tend to move toward darkness, rather than light. In this experiment, the rats that were given theanine learned to remain in a light room rather than a dark room—in order to avoid an electrical shock—longer than the group that didn’t receive theanine.1

L-Theanine has been shown to be effective for:

• Inducing relaxation throughout the body, without drowsiness1,2

• Combating stress1

• Controlling hypertension4,5

• Improving learning performance1

• Heightening mental acuity1

• Promoting concentration1

• Reducing caffeine effects6

• Supporting the immune system7

L-Theanine provides a number of powerful health benefits by:

• Acting as a neurotransmitter in the brain1

• Lowering blood pressure4,5

• Inducing the emission of alpha-brain waves, an indication of relaxation1,2

• Lessening the stimulant effect of caffeine in green tea on the human nervous system1

• Reducing serotonin levels8

Relaxation without sedation

L-theanine is an ideal nutritional aid for stress because—unlike anti-stress herbs like valerian and kava kava, which make you drowsy—it produces alpha-wave activity that leads to deep relaxation and mental alertness.1,2 This is especially important because in order to mitigate stressful situations, it’s important to remain calm and alert.

So if you are a caregiver treat yourself to several cups of green tea every day. If you don’t like the taste, you can find green teas that are flavored with fruit and herbal extracts, such as on this site, http://www.green-tea-health-news.com/flavored-green-tea.html

And if you don’t want to run back and forth to the bathroom all day, you can try a theanine dietary supplement. No contraindications have been established and information regarding the safety and efficacy in pregnancy and lactation is lacking.

If you’d like to read more articles like this one, please subscribe to my blog and to the Denver Alzheimer’s examiner.com, where I write newsworthy and informative articles about Alzheimer’s disease: http://www.examiner.com/alzheimers-in-denver/barbra-cohn

References

  1. Juneja, L., Chu, D.-C, Okubo, T., et al. L-Theanine—a unique amino acid of green tea and its relaxation effect in humans. Trends Food Sci Tech 10:199-204, 1999.
  2. Ito, K., nagat, Y., Aoi, N. Juneja, L.R., Kim, K., Yamamoto, T., Siugimoto, S., Effects of L-theanine on the release of alpha-brain waves in human volutneers. Nippon Nogeikagaku kaishi 72:153, 1998.
  3. Kimura, R., Murata, T. The influence of alkylamides of glutamic acid and related compounds on the central nervous system: I. Central depressant effect of theanine. Chem Pharm Bull (Tokyo) 19:1257-1261, 1971.
  4. Yokogoshi, H., Kato, Y., Sagesaka, Y., Matsuura, T., Kakuda, T. and Takeuchi, N. Reduction Effect of Theanine on Blood Pressure and Brain 5-Hydroxyindoles in Spontaneously Hypertensive Rats’. Biosci. Biotecnol. Biochem. 59, 615-618, 1995.
  5. Yokogoshi, H. and Kobayashi, M. Hypotensive Effect of y-Glutamylmethylamide in Spontaneously Hypertensive Rats. Life Sci. 62, 1065-1068, 1998.
  6. Yamamoto, T. (ed) Chemistry and Applications of Green Tea. Boca Raton: CRC Press, 1997.
  7. Information sheet Edina, MN: Taiyo International,Inc., undated
  8. Yokogashi, H., Mochizuki, M. and Saitoh, K. Theanine-Induced Reduction of Brain Serotonin Concentration in Rats. Biosci. Biotechnol. Biochem. 62, 816-817, 1998.