It’s never too early to think about your future.
“Memory is all we are. Moments and feelings, captured in amber, strung on filaments of reason. Take a man’s memories and you take all of him. Chip away a memory at a time and you destroy him as surely as if you hammered nail after nail through his skull.”― Mark Lawrence, King of Thorns
The recent revelation that Bruce Willis was diagnosed with aphasia, a condition that is caused when there is damage to the language-dominant side of the brain, was a shock to many as the thought of one of our greatest cinematic heroes having to suffer through that for the rest of his life speaks to many of our greatest fears.
We’ve all heard or seen the pictures of grandma or grandpa who were the epitome of regality and strength within our family for so long being reduced to someone who cannot remember the names of their grandkids or the name of the town in which they grew up.
It’s the fear of some neurological disease taking away our dignity and respect as we age that is extremely scary for a lot of people.
The thought of having to fight various diseases or ailments in the future is something that most people understand can and will happen.
However, the one caveat that most people desire is to have their general faculties or “wits” about them, as the thought of losing this is almost like losing who you are in general.
While some people may think this is something you don’t need to worry about until you are much older or later in life (Bruce Willis just turned 67), the reality is that it is never too early to begin thinking about the things you can do to keep your brain sharp and prevent neurological atrophy in the future.
There are a number of things that we should be aware of that help or hurt our chances of maintaining our mental faculties within our golden years.
While we would all like to think that we can eat whatever we want whenever we desire and not experience any negative consequences from it, the reality is that this is just not the case in the long term.
While our physical body is the best representation of we are what we eat, the effect that our diet has can be as pronounced, if not more.
The reason for this relates to how various helpful nutrients are able to feed our brain and give it the “food” it needs to stay strong and vibrant.
Food such as leafy greens, fish, blueberries, and nuts have all been linked to numerous positive effects that help the brain.
Leafy greens, such as spinach or kale, are full of great nutrients that our body needs like vitamin E which has been linked to protecting the cell from damage from free radicals as well as preventing cognitive decline.
Fatty fish, such as salmon, is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are critical for brain function and development.
Lastly, berries such as blueberries have essential nutrients for the body, such as vitamin C, vitamin K, and phytonutrients. These nutrients help stimulate blood and oxygen to the brain, resulting in improving concentration.
There are a number of other foods that have similar positive effects on the brain short term and long term.
When you sometimes think of athletes, you figure that all that hard work they are putting in the gym to be successful physically must surely take away from their mental ability.
And while there is some truth to the more you workout, the less time you’re going to have to be able to devote to reading and studying, the concept of exercise as being the foundation of all success is no more evident than its effect on keeping our brain as strong and effective as possible.
When one exercises, your heart rate increase, which pumps more oxygen to the brain. This also helps with the release of hormones that provide a great environment for the growth of brain cells.
There was even a study done at UCLA that demonstrated exercise increased the growth factors in the brain which made it easier for the brain to grow new neuronal connections.
Not all training is equal, however.
Consistent aerobic exercise has been connected with boosting the size of the hippocampus, the brain area most related to verbal memory and learning, while resistance training and lifting weight did not have the same results.
This is one that many people refuse to accept until it may become too late to do so, but excessive alcohol drinking has been linked to increasing one’s chances of having memory issues with time.
If you had any stint in college, you are probably aware of the effect of excessive drinking on your short-term memory in the form of something known as blackouts that may have happened all too often during that time in your life.
The cult classic and cinematic masterpiece Dude, Where’s My Car? comes to mind.
What many people don’t realize is that with time, excessive drinking not only makes it more difficult to remember where you parked your car the night before, but it can also affect your ability to recall what is known as prospective memory.
Prospective memory is your memory to complete day-to-day functions.
In various studies, those who drank excessively had issues with remembering to do everyday things, such as sending an email, turning off the stove, or following up with that vendor as promised.
Much of this is related to the effect alcohol has on the hippocampus. The hippocampus is critical to both your short-term and long-term memory, and the more one drinks the more this shrinks with time. This is very much why excessive alcohol use and high intellectual development just don’t mix.
Outside of this, people who drink heavily are often deficient in vitamin B-1, which is vital to providing energy to the brain to help nerve cells grow.
Therefore, just like certain foods aid the growth of the brain’s neurons and synapses to keep it healthy, alcohol detracts from the nutrients needed to prevent it from growing.
Consistent mental stimulation/challenge
This last tip is related to an article I wrote recently about the importance of learning a new language for the growth and protection of your brain.
While the myth that your brain is a muscle is not quite true, there is some truth in that it behaves like a muscle in two major ways.
The first is that if you don’t use it consistently, then it will lose its ability to react in a fast manner when needed. It’s similar to a car that you don’t crank up on a regular basis.
There may not be anything wrong with it, but if you leave it idle for too long, the gears get a bit rusty and it will take much more time and effort to crank it up when you need it, as opposed to using it every day.
For your brain, this involves calling on it to do things outside of your normal everyday routine and pushing it to respond in a manner that is not rudimentary or rote from doing the same thing each day.
The second way that it is similar to a muscle is that you need to push it to grow. You can work out every day and keep your muscle ready to react when needed, but if you want them to grow, you need to try to lift heavier weights than you did before.
This is known as a concept of progressive overload and is one of the techniques most trainers swear by if you truly want to gain size and mass in your muscles.
What this looks like with your brain is doing things like learning a new language or taking a course that is mentally challenging to keep your brain performing at its peak.
Doing things like crossword puzzles, brainteasers, and using apps such as Lumosity do help, but to really push your mind to grow, you should focus on more involved long-term activities like learning a new language or musical instrument.
And while there’s no guarantee that you won’t still forget your car keys or where you parked your car from time to time, as least you’ll know you’re doing everything in your power to prevent this from happening more and more in the future.