Tag Archives: memory

Avoiding Brain Drain

In hopes of staving off cognitive decline, I’ve been refreshing my French with the help of the free online language courses on DuoLingo. Next up: brushing up on my minimal Italian (one college semester) in preparation for our trip to Sicily, Milan and Florence in October.flag-2292679_640Younger readers may think this is an issue that only affects their parents or grandparents. Not so fast: apparently the seeds of dementia can be sewn in our 30’s, 40’s and 50’s — up to three decades before the disease appears full-blown. Yowza.

Nearly two-thirds of Alzheimer’s sufferers are women. But the good news is that there’s a lot we can do to protect ourselves – at every age. Reducing inflammation, insulin resistance, blood sugar, high LDL cholesterol and vascular problems lowers our risk, and current research now focuses as much on causes as on cures.

The Big Three: Eating, Exercise and Engagement.

EATING

The Mediterranean Diet won’t just keep you slim; it’s literally brain food. Eating veggies, nuts, berries, beans, whole grains, fish, poultry and olive oil boosts brain health. And don’t forget the wine: the resveratrol in red wine has many benefits.

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  • Protects the lining of our arteries so blood can flow freely
  • Improves the body’s ability to repair damage caused by free radicals, which helps prevent premature aging of cells
  • Blocks the production of inflammatory agents

What to avoid? Sugar. Too much can lead to obesity and diabetes, both of which increase the risk of dementia. So swap that margarita for cabernet! And watch your cholesterol: high levels can cause plaque buildup in blood vessels and keep blood from effectively reaching all parts of your brain.

EXERCISE

It’s as good for your brain as it is for your butt.

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  • Aerobic exercise builds up grey matter in the cerebral cortex (where memories live), releases chemicals thought to affect learning and memory, and delivers oxygen to your brain.
  • Regular exercise sharpens focus and stimulates nerve cells and blood vessel formation in the hippocampus, another part of the brain associated with memory. Don’t you love the word hippocampus, which sounds like a university for, you know, hippos? (I threw that in to see if you’re paying attention.) hippo-783522_640
  • Studies have shown that strength training improves blood flow to areas of the brain associated with executive function and memory. So pump that iron!
  • Stress busters such as yoga help reduce cortisol, the fight-or-flight hormone that can go into overdrive, impairing memory and causing neuron-damaging inflammation.

ENGAGEMENT 

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  • Learn something new and keep doing new things (at least an hour each day).
  • Spend time socializing; it helps build new brain cells.
  • Protect your heart (and not just romantically!) The better it pumps, the more blood can circulate throughout your body, nourishing the neurons and blood vessels in your brain.
  • Feeling bored at work or in a social situation? Wiggle your toes — it snaps you back to the moment.
  • Hit the sheets for at least seven hours. The slow-wave stage before REM sleep is thought to be the time when cognitive function strengthens and consolidates.
  • Take time to relax. It lowers blood pressure to help reduce strain on blood vessels.

Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for my new fitness regimen: lifting several heavy glasses of wine while reading Italian travel guides and researching restaurants. Gotta start someplace, right? Salute e ciao!

Quiz-ical

The other day I took an online Jungian personality quiz three times until I got the personality that felt the most accurate. (If you guessed “obsessive”, you are correct!!)

I’ve been obsessed with quizzes as long as I can remember: “Which Beatle is your soul mate?” “Is your boyfriend cheating on you?” “What’s the most flattering hair style for your face?” “Are you doing everything you can for perfect skin?”

I loved magazines – still do – and the quizzes were some of my favorite features. Nowadays, online quizzes serve a similar function, and challenge my ever-weakening memory: “How many of these 90’s movie scenes can you identify?” (I was so excited to get 100% until I realized everyone gets 100% regardless of their answers.) “Only geniuses will answer this math quiz correctly.” (Not on the first try, because I’m sure there are at least two correct answers. Creativity and math don’t usually go together.)

Quizzes are mini wake-up calls, reassurances that we’re in step with the zeitgeist the way we think we are, ways to bond with other members of our “tribe” (“Your score indicates that you are a Problem Solver!”) and reminders to take stock of things we might otherwise neglect (“Do you take your spouse for granted?”).

They’re often a quick way to learn something new, too. “Can you identify the 5 leading causes of depression?” Or, “Do you know why sugar’s bad for you?”

Back in school, I always did better on multiple-choice tests, vs. an essay test where you had to remember the information without any hints. Even if I had only a vague memory of the chapter we’d studied, once I saw the answer sitting in front of me it would trigger some deep sense of familiarity and I would seize on it like a drowning person reaching for an outstretched log.

My mind is a steel trap when it comes to arcane facts about minor celebrities, fashion trends and other trivia. It’s a sieve regarding most items of significance. I suspect this is because I can only process small pieces of (usually useless) information at a time. Then they rattle around in the back of my brain until shaken loose. Facts about my own life experiences, however, often elude me.

I couldn’t tell you who taught my freshman French class if someone put a gun to my head. Or the names of my kids’ teachers. Or pretty much anything that has to do with geography. Never could.

But show me a list of possible options and I might stumble onto the right choice.

So the next time I can’t remember what the new neighbor does for a living, give me a quiz: It’s either a) doorman, b) Chippendale’s dancer, c) surgeon or d) chef. God help me if the answer is, “None of the above”.