Brain Training

Active NeuronBy the time I was twenty-five years old, I had three darling children under the age of five. It was a challenging period of my life, but the four of us had great fun together. Interacting with them day and night allowed me to play out the best times of my own childhood.

But one afternoon I noticed an odd look settle on the face of an Avon representative who I’d invited into my home. I paused, silently trying to decide what I might have said to offend her. Then our conversation of the previous few minutes played back in my mind – I had been talking to her in baby talk. I said something like, “How silly,” and laughed. She laughed, politely. I was mortified, but I knew what I had to do. My brain needed exercise. By the end of that week I had studied a college catalog and registered for courses for the upcoming semester.

So here I am twenty-five plus years later, finding myself – not speaking baby-talk – but not able to hold a lengthy conversation without stopping in mid-sentence because the word I want to say has disappeared from my brain. It was there, this word-thingy, just the moment before when my thoughts, having been processed into words, were lining up to trip lightly off my tongue. It’s a frustrating experience, embarrassing, and scary. (Most of my girlfriends of the same age have this problem off and on, and we nod and try to fill in the gaps for each other.)

Onward into the fray that is the Internet.

According to HelpGuide.org, “The human brain has an astonishing ability to adapt and change – even into old age. This ability is known as neuroplasticity. With the right stimulation, your brain can form new neural pathways, alter existing connections, and adapt and react in ever-changing ways. The brain’s incredible ability to reshape itself holds true when it comes to learning and memory.” This is great news.

We all know that exercise is good for us. Movement increases oxygen to your entire body, including your brain. It helps reduce the risk of developing diabetes and heart disease and helps to counter the effects of these diseases that rob the brain of oxygen and lead to memory loss.

Our brains also need exercise. Throughout our lives, our brains develop neural pathways to help process information. As adults, we’ve come to rely on millions of these pathways to solve problems and perform everyday tasks. The thing is, if we only use the same paths, our brains won’t be stimulated to grow and develop. We need to purposely find new and challenging activities to exercise our grey matter – not something we’ve already mastered.

Now is the time to sign up for a computer class, learn a different language, take dance lessons, try a musical instrument, play computer games (if board games are your usual thing), or try Sudoku if you’re used to crossword puzzles. You can play games online at luminosity.com that are “engineered to train a range of cognitive functions, from working memory to fluid intelligence.” They have free, challenging games, as well as enhanced ones that require a monthly fee. (Go to luminosity.com for a list of other sites that offer free online games.)

In addition to exercise, there are others things we can do to boost our brainpower – we can laugh more, stress less, and eat healthier.

Research has shown that foods rich in omega-3s are especially beneficial to a healthy brain, such as fish (salmon, tuna, halibut, trout, mackerel, sardines, herring) and non-fish sources (walnuts, ground flaxseed oil, pumpkin seeds, and soybeans).

Antioxidants protect your brain cells from damage and are found in higher concentrations in fruits and vegetables with lots of color (berries, plums, and guavas; spinach, peppers, and parsley), dried fruit, legumes, nuts and seeds, some cereals and spices. (Go here for a more complete list). Green tea is also a good source of antioxidants called polyphenols that protect against damage to brain cells and may help enhance memory and slow brain aging.

Wine (in moderation), grape juice, cranberry juice, peanuts, and fresh grapes and berries contain resveratrol that boosts blood flow in the brain and reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s.

In my research I found a lot of encouraging news and choices I can make to improve my memory and keep my brain healthy. “Choice” is a key word here and wisdom tells me to make these choices sooner than later.

Do you suffer with the same word-thingy problem? What are you doing to save your brain?

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Live More, Fear Less: Aging (with Style)

After my recent post about finding beauty in imperfection, I came across Ari Seth Cohen’s Advanced Style blog. According to a note in the sidebar, he roams “the streets of New York looking for the most stylish and creative older folks” to photograph. He shares these photos on his blog, as well as video interviews. He says, “Respect your elders and let these ladies and gents teach you a thing or two about living life to the fullest.”

In one post he explains that he “started the blog in order to change people’s perception of aging and show that there is much fun to be had once you reach 80, 90 and 100 years old. Women often tell [him] that after 40 they have started to feel invisible…girls have reached out to tell [him] that they look forward to growing old like the Advanced Style ladies. Older women have commented that [his] photos have given them the permission to dress up and feel good about themselves.”

He’s also working on a documentary film titled Advanced Style which presents “portraits of women aging gracefully with tremendous spirit [that] will challenge conventional ideas about beauty, growing old, and Western culture’s increasing obsession with youth.”

If my mother was still alive, she’d celebrate her 85th birthday this year. I like to think Ari Seth Cohen would have picked her out of the crowd to photograph, too. She wasn’t extravagant, but she loved color, walked with her head held high (because ladies should have good posture), owned dozens of purses and scarves, and never left the house without wearing a bright shade of lipstick and a spray of perfume.

There is something remarkable about people who dress in their own unconventional way, regardless of what anyone else thinks. It speaks of freedom and courage (and maybe rebellion). Seeing someone – especially an elderly someone – dressed in classic elegance or crazy colors and patterns always makes me smile. Not because I think they look funny but because I know they must be the most interesting people to get to know. They have stories to tell and something to say to the rest of us.

Do you know someone from the “wise and silver-haired set” who you’ll never forget because of their own special style?

Live More, Fear Less: Imperfection

beauty in imperfectionI’m not perfect, but I want to be. I accept imperfection in others because I know no one is perfect. But for some reason, it’s hard to apply that acceptance to myself.

I strive for perfection, not in my physical appearance (that’s beyond help), but in most things I do in my life. This does not include housework, however. I decided years ago to take on my mother’s philosophy that there are better things to do than clean one’s house everyday. My nagging – no, my screaming – perfectionism deals with just about everything else.

When I do something for someone, like complete a job or make a gift or cook a meal, I strive to make sure it’s done perfectly, and beat myself up if it’s not. Perfection is, after all, what others expect from me, right? It’s taken me years to realize that people don’t expect perfection from me, any more than I expect it from them. I need to remind myself of this truth just about every day.

Now that I’m aging – the proof of it in graying hair, wrinkles, and body parts that droop (yippee) a little bit more each day – I’m facing even more personal imperfection. Oddly, this lack of being perfect doesn’t bother me so much.

I look at nature. Often, the most beautiful trees are those that have grown a bit crooked, off-centered but somehow still balanced. Their imperfect shadings of leaf and bark catch my eye. And smooth, shiny stones are certainly beautiful, but it’s the ones with cracks and interesting veins of impurity that I’ll turn over in my hands and look at the most.

If I understand the concept right, the Japanese call it wabi-sabi, which has to do with finding beauty in imperfection – those things that are simple or unrefined, not quite symmetrical, that have attained beauty or serenity through age or wear.

If we live long enough, we will all be old someday. Our youth will fade, but will our beauty, really? Or will that which we think is beautiful change? If we allow ourselves, will we see the beauty in how time changes us? We cannot be perfect but we can be beautiful.

Let us strive to accept the imperfection in ourselves and in others. What do you think is beautiful but imperfect at the same time?