President’s January Message

As the years fly by, I have become aware of some annoying changes in me… specifically, more than usual blanking on words (memory) and sometimes balance problems. I suspect it has to do with aging, but I try not to worry too much because I do exercise, (play tennis, go to exercise classes, and climb stairs at Brock) and exercise my brain by working crossword puzzles and tutoring in the course I have taught for years. Hopefully I am slowing down the progression.

Some of this was confirmed when I recently heard a Brock psychology researcher speak at a Retirees Luncheon. Dr. Karen Campbell pointed out that evidence does show walking, getting good sleep and eating a healthy diet all help keep your brain functioning reasonably well. But the ability to do crossword puzzles isn’t transferable to other parts of the brain. You just get better at doing crossword puzzles! The skill doesn’t make your memory better. Ah, well.

The Keynote Speaker for the CFUW Ontario Council Speaker’s Series in November, Dr. Andrea Wilkinson, confirmed the fact that brain games aren’t transferrable. She said you can only improve overall mental function by sustained mental effort. The brain actually grows new cells and changes in response to new experiences. She described the Four Pillars of Brain Plasticity as Physical, Nutritional, Deep Sleep, and Social. Well, the members of CFUW have that last one nailed!

Research shows that walking 30 minutes a day, doing strength training and exercising with resistance bands three times a week can reduce the loss of cells in the hippocampus, which is where short term memory is converted to long term memory. Eating fruits and vegetables, fish and poultry, healthy fats and limiting processed foods strengthens the immune system and supports the growth of new cells. Everyday life and stress produce plaque accumulations, which can be “cleaned up” by glial cells and “flushed away” during a good night’s sleep. Socializing helps memory and increases attention span. The key, though, seems to be learning and doing new things, not resting on your laurels and just using and doing what you already know.

Recently, at our New Member’s Reception, I heard a new CFUW member, Jan Murdoch, who is a retired Phys Ed teacher, talk about being an instructor in an exercise program for seniors. She said that physical activities often activate areas of the brain that control cognitive functions (how we learn, think, perceive, and remember.) I had heard that having brain damaged adults crawl helped them to read again, so this made sense. We asked Jan for examples of exercises, and she mentioned jumping up a stair step. It sounded easy, but when I tried, I was afraid to do it! It was as if I had forgotten how to jump with both feet! When I finally made myself jump on the kitchen floor, it was surprisingly hard. Keeping my feet apart and swinging my arms helps and I do three or four jumps every day. It is becoming easier and soon I’ll try the steps. I recommend that you read Jan’s blog on her web site, http://womenwalkingforlife.com/, for other exercises and really good information.

I was interested in what area of the brain is activated by jumping so I started reading books about the brain. I haven’t found the answer to that question yet, but here’s what I have discovered: In the “Super Brain”, Deepak Chopra and Rudolph Tanzi point out that if you don’t do new things every day, the result is a baseline brain. For example, if you decide to have the same breakfast as yesterday, the brain doesn’t change. But if you decide to try something different, you tap into a reservoir of creativity, and the brain grows new cells and you start to make a super brain.

They suggest the norm is that as we age, we get lazy and apathetic about learning. We tend to simplify our mental activities, feel secure with what we know and don’t go out of our way to learn new things. While we refer to lapses in memory as “senior moments” they are actually due to a lack of paying attention and learning. We didn’t bother to think about what we were doing. We just did it automatically. If we don’t think about it, we lose the ability to think about it. It’s the classic “use it or lose it”.

In “The Brain That Changes Itself”, Norman Doidge observes that while we still consider ourselves as active, we rarely engage in tasks that require intense focus. Activities such as reading the newspaper, practicing a profession of many years, and speaking our own language are mostly a replay of mastered skills–not new learning. By the time we hit our 70s, we may not have systematically engaged the system in the brain that regulates plasticity (growth and change) for 50 years! Anything that requires highly focused concentration such as new physical activities, new dances, learning a new language, or making a career change will gradually sharpen everything else as well. But, you have to keep doing it.

Dr. Doidge also says that gross motor control is a function that declines with age, and leads to a loss of balance. This loss is caused by a decrease in the sensory feedback from our feet to our brain as a result of wearing shoes for decades! When we go barefoot, our brain receives many different kinds of input as we walk over uneven surfaces. Shoes are a relatively flat platform that spreads out stimuli, and the surfaces we walk on are increasingly artificial and flat. The result is the limiting of the effect of touch that guides our foot control. This leads to the use of canes and walkers and looking down at our feet to compensate for the decrease in balance, which hastens the decline of our brain systems.

So, I guess I need to start learning the language of Organic Chemistry, and going barefoot more!

I hope you have a wonderful holiday. See you in 2020!