Although it is mainly older people that are concerned with brain exercises, new research suggests that we should pay more attention to brain health from an early age.
One in ten people over the age of 65 have dementia, after the age of 85 it is one in three. One research scientist has likened it to superannuation, in as much as you should start investing in the health of your brain as early as possible.
The decline in brain function can take decades meaning that lifestyle in the early years will impact on the brain as we age.
Brain exercises are now considered perfectly normal. It seems that everywhere you go these days you will come across people doing crosswords, Sudoku and various types of activities to keep the brain in shape but not so long ago the idea that the brain needed exercising would have met with derision or scepticism.
My husband Chris and I have always believed in holistic health and back in the eighties we were becoming interested in a new form of eye exercise. When we mentioned it among a group of friends and family they thought we had lost the plot. One can only imagine what they would have said about brain exercises.
Whilst it is obvious that most people want to keep everything in good working order for as long as possible, it is no secret that, fear of dementia as we age is a driving force behind the brain exercise explosion. Baby boomers, of which I am one, expect to live for a long time and they expect to accomplish more than their parents and grandparents did.
People want to be fit and healthy to enjoy the latter part of their lives so brain health is becoming an accepted part of our health and fitness regime.
A healthy lifestyle has the potential to prevent around a third of all dementia. Even people in the early stages of the disease can still make a difference if they make changes beneficial to the health of their brain. Although it is not by any means conclusive, medical science and research have proved that a healthy lifestyle makes a difference to the health of our brain.
Some of the key factors that may help to lessen the impact of dementia are pretty well known to most people by now but it is worth reiterating them.
Avoid Smoking. Not smoking helps to prevent the onset of dementia. It also lowers the risk of several other smoker related diseases. Passive smoking can still be a problem but has been greatly reduced by introduction of smoking bans in the workplace and public areas.
It is a known fact that when you stop smoking the body starts repairing itself straightaway regardless of how long you have been a smoker. When the body is well maintained and cared for it will run efficiently well into old age.
Alcohol Consumption. No-one can dictate just how much alcohol another person should drink but the standard drinks rule does set guidelines for responsible drinking. Alcohol just like smoking has a whole raft of associated diseases that are well documented.
Physical Exercise. Obesity is now looming as the next health related catastrophe; this is shocking when you think that it is a preventable disease. Walking, cycling or cardiovascular exercise strengthens the heart and the blood vessels to the brain. Apart from keeping you physically fit, it helps the brain to become sharper and more alert.
Adequate Sleep. A solid night’s sleep is critical for good health. This is the only time the body is able to heal and rejuvenate itself. While it is possible to get by on minimal sleep in the short term it is not wise to do it on a regular basis.
Over time sleep deprivation can cause major health problems. And researchers are now studying the effect that lack of sleep can have on the brain. They have proved that in the short term it can affect judgement, mood, and the ability to learn and retain information.
Lack of sleep can also disrupt the immune system and long term it can lead to diseases such as heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.
Healthy Eating Habits. A healthy diet should include fresh wholesome food and little or no processed food. Keep your fluid levels topped up with water rather than soft drinks or sweet juices.
The whole diet issue can be a bit of a minefield, it just isn’t possible to prescribe an eating plan that suits everyone. Do your research, don’t get taken in by fancy marketing and remember that supplements are just that; they are to supplement a diet that is deficient of a particular vitamin or mineral. They can’t totally compensate for the lack of a balanced diet.
Try not eating on the run, chew food thoroughly and if possible eat at a table in a comfortable position. It is never too late to make changes to your lifestyle.
The good thing about exercising the brain is the sheer number of exercises or activities that are available. However it is important to vary exercises so that they don’t become rote.
Of course brain exercises don’t have to be exercises in the strictest terms, any activity that involves thinking is an exercise in itself.
An activity which involves learning something new is good for the brain, even a simple task being done for the first time engages the brain into thinking mode.
Problem solving is a form of brain exercise, especially complex problems with multiple solutions.
It could be argued that people who work or lead a busy life don’t need to do brain exercises but it depends on how much they actually stretch the brain. Tasks which in the beginning may have seemed complex become easier so the brain doesn’t work so hard.
Anyone who has ever learnt to drive can relate to this. At first it is scary trying to remember all the moves, especially if it is a manual drive. However it soon becomes so natural that you hardly need to think about it, it is a bit like being on automatic pilot. It is almost as if the brain is saying “Wake me when something happens”. The old saying “Use it or lose it” has plenty of merit where the brain is concerned, so exercising it make sense.
Although many people think about brain exercises in terms of Sudoku, scrabble or chess it is a much broader subject altogether. For anyone thinking of doing these types of exercises and wondering what would be best here is a brief overview that may help.
First of all the exercises can be grouped into three main categories.
1) Games. Brain exercises that are just that brain exercises, and nothing more.
Games such as scrabble, Sudoku, chess and similar are ideal because apart from exercising the brain they are a form of enjoyment or relaxation.
They are portable and can be done anywhere at any time, ideal in situations like travel when one has to wait around. Mobile platforms now make it easier than ever, I could never get anyone to play scrabble with me but nowadays I play against the computer whenever I want.
Of course if any of these games are notched up to competition level that involves a bigger workout for the brain.
2) Brain exercises as a by product.
This occurs when you take up a new interest that has a learning curve. If for instance you became interested in astronomy and wanted to learn all about it your brain would have to process all the new information. This is a great way to exercise the brain naturally.
As our life becomes more dominated by technology it is crucial to acquire skills which allow us to take advantage of the electronic age. Since computer technology is complex it involves a big learning curve.
Chris has always been into computers but I put off using one for years because it all seemed too hard. Fortunately it is never too late and now I have one of my own and don’t know what I would do without it!
3) Brain exercises with a purpose.
This happens when you undertake a task with an end goal in mind. You might do a university course to get a degree or learn a language to go travelling. Maybe you want a complete change of career and need to learn a new set of skills.
These types of activities appeal to people who like a challenge or who are looking to make changes in their life. Increasing numbers of older people or retirees are moving in this direction because they feel they want more out of life than to sit around doing puzzles on a permanent basis.
In his book “The brain that changes itself” Norman Doidge M.D. Cites the case of Dr Stanley Karansky who practised as an anaesthesiologist until he retired at age 70. Retirement didn’t suit him so he retrained himself as a family doctor and worked until he was 80.
Not so many years ago the “Masters Games” were introduced because so many older people were participating in competitive sport. Watching entrants aged in the nineties competing in marathons and swimming races would have seemed impossible to our parents and grandparents. We now accept it as normal and as we learn more about what the brain is capable of who knows what the future will bring.
Brain health isn’t just a fad it is here to stay and no-one will question the fact that our brain, like the rest of our body needs regular exercise and a good diet.