Keeping your brain in order

Whenever I talk to someone about the idea of being brain fit, or focusing on having a healthy brain, the conversation inevitably lead to questions about whether brain training can prevent dementia, or the onset of Alzheimers Disease (AD).   So let’s deal with that up front. Firstly, dementia and AD are not the same thing.
You can have a form of dementia that is completely unrelated to AD.

Your risk of developing either of them increases as you age but it is not considered “normal” to develop these conditions.  Dementia is not a disease. It is a group of symptoms that affect mental tasks such as  memory and reasoning and can be caused by a variety of conditions, a major one of which is AD which account for 50-70 per cent of all cases.

Parkinson’s Disease, Huntington’s Disease, drug use, stroke and depression are also causes of dementia.
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive disease of the brain that slowly impairs memory and cognitive function. The exact cause is unknown and there is no known cure.

Early symptoms of dementia can be mild and easily overlooked, such as episodes of forgetfulness, having trouble keeping track of time and a tendency to lose your way in familiar settings.  Obvious signs of advancing dementia include forgetfulness and confusion, difficulty in recalling names and faces, repetitious questioning and poor decision-making.

And of course, advanced stages of dementia can be totally debilitating.  So can we reduce our risk of Alzheimer’s and hence risk of dementia?  There are now many studies that indicate that proactively “exercising” the brain – keeping it active in specific ways – significantly lowers the risk of developing AD.

A 2012 study from Berkeley, California found that greater participation in cognitively stimulating activities across the lifespan, but particularly in early and middle life, was associated with reduced risk of AD.  In other words, you should start deliberately exercising your brain as early as you can.  In an earlier study, researchers found that even a small increase in cognitive activity was associated with a 33 per cent reduced risk. It’s worth the effort.

Let’s be clear. There is no absolute proof that working to be brain fit will prevent dementia, but there are many, many studies now that are consistently pointing in that direction, and that’s enough for me. So a great suggestion is to start some basic brain training.  There are plenty of online brain game sites you can access or sign up for.  

If you are not into brain training, at least make a conscious effort to use your brain in different ways when you can.  Learn something new, take up a musical instrument or learn to play chess.   Do something that will require the creation of totally new neuronal pathways as this process seems to encourage brain health in much the same way that exercising benefits heart health.

Even taking a different route to work or reversing the hand you use to brush your teeth will create new pathways.  Whatever your age or health status, start to do something “deliberate” to keep your brain active and healthy… and start today.

 Michelle Loch is an expert in the neuroscience of human motivation, author and director of Rewired Leadership.

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