Cognitive aging at the age of 64 can result in some scary feelings, a little worry, a little fear, because these days my vision is not quite what it was, and so on.
If you are my age, 62, then I am sure you and Bill Clinton feel my pain.
I grew up with the neuroscientific model that we had all the neurons we were going to have and all the brain circuitry that we were going to have by the time we were five years old or so, and that we would slowly lose those neuronal assets until we ended up in 'the home' staring vapidly at a fish tank.
That model is still so ingrained that at first blush I forget that we have made some wonderful discoveries about the human brain in the last few years, like the brain grows new neurons throughout the life span, so there are replacement parts available.
That is right, my cognitive aging does not need to describe a slow descent into alzheimers.
The process of growing new new neurons is called neurogenesis, and it can be encouraged.
But there is a catch, of course. Neurogenesis and its cousin, neuroplasticity, which is the connections neurons make amongst themselves when they learn something new, can be encouraged if we take care of the what the research folks who are writing about this call the pillars of brain fitness.
Those pillars are physical exercise, good nutrition including anti-oxidants and omega 3 fatty acids, good sleep, (no problem with that one, right?), stress management, and novel learning experiences.
If you have not exercised for awhile, or do not like fish, which is the best source of omega 3 fatty acid, or are still living a high stress lifestyle, you may despair that neurogenesis is beyond what you can hope for.
They write for the layperson, and their mission is to give us information we can use to age well.
In my book, that means increase neurogenesis and neuroplasticity.
Physical exercise is the most important pillar of brain fitness, but it does not mean that you have to buy an expensive club membership or hire a trainer.
It means you have build a way for there to be lots of deep breathing in your life, which could come from doing more of what you are already doing. If you are walking regularly, then walk for a little longer, a little faster, fast enough that it is hard to breathe and talk at the same time.
Of course once you start, you will want to start lifting weights and getting buff all over again.
And if you are looking for a model, check out what 89 year old Bill and 82 year old Pat do. Bill and Pat do a kind of workout called HIIT or hign intensity interval workouts, which can last for as long as ten (10) minutes, a couple of times a day.
I can do that for positive cognitive aging.
Broadly speaking, you get no more processed foods, which are full of appetite stimulants and high fructose corn syrup. You do get lots of fruit and vegetables because they are full of anti-oxidants which sop up free radicals that result from the incredible number of chemical reactions that happen in your noggin every second. Your brain uses 20% of the fuel you burn every day, but comprises only 2% of your weight, so lots of reactions happen, and free radicals are actually what cause aging. Smoothies are a great way to get a daily dose of fruits, and juicing is a very good way to get those phytochemicals that our neurons need.
Your neurons are also about 70% omega 3 fatty acid, which we do not make very efficiently from food, unless you are eating lots of fish. Not sure about you, while I like eating fish, I am concerned about mercury so I like a supplement to make sure I am getting what Evans and Burghardt recommend. If omega 3 fatty acid is not replenished regularly, according to Evans and Burghardt, neurons get brittle and their conversations get garbled, leading to poor decisions. Omega 3 Fatty Acid
Eustress versus distress. Neurogenesis is inhibited by the presence of unnecessary stress hormones, so stress management is a very important part of the cognitive aging process.
Stress management and mindfulness have important links, and biofeedback can be a key piece of stress management. The tool I like the best for stress management, because it combines mindfulness, cognitions, and breathing to learn how to manage the time between heart beats is called Heartmath heart rate variability biofeedback.
The great thing about biofeedback is that it is learned so I practice it on the computer for 5-10 sessions, and then, more than likely, you will be able to cue a response simply by remembering your Heartmath cue thought, or your breathing pattern, or both.
Heartmath heart rate variability biofeedback is a wonderful tool to use to help you drift off to sleep, and a full cycle of sleep stages is very important for your neurogenesis.
For example, your brain consolidates the days memories while you sleep, and also releases melatonin, which is a key daily event in keeping your brain healthy
If you click on the Heartmath in the right column , there are some tutorials available to view which will give you a feel for the tool.
The last of the brain fitness pillars involves the novel learning experience, and it is the pillar which most enhances the connectivity of neurons or neuroplasticity, and that connectivity, or cognitive reserve is very important in providing re-routing around plaques in the brain.
The factor most important is the novelty factor, so if you are a counselor, you cannot read another counseling book and hope to enhance neuroplasticity.
The kinds of learning most endorsed for this pillar is the kind we experience when learning a new language or a new instrument.
You might want to take a look at some of the research around the computerized brain fitness programs that have emerged in the last couple of years, like Mind Sparke Brain Fitness Pro, Lumosity, or the Posit Science Brain Fitness Program, which is designed for the Senior Brain and tested in the IMPACT study.
I have tried those three and can recommend them personally. Not sure if my IQ is bigger, and don't ask my kids, but my word recall is better.
Very early in my personal growth experience, a wise person taught me to use the phrase "gratitude is the attitude" when I was resentful or afraid and that phrase has helped me feel better tens of thousands of times.
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