Friday, February 15, 2013

How to Protect Your Memory: 101

Remember what you've been told for most of your life about having been born with all the brain cells you'll ever have and it’s downhill from there? Do you still believe that? Do you know that it's possible to not only grow new brain cells, but to strengthen those that are there and to provide them with new connections? Does all of this seem a bit like science fiction? Sure it does, but the latest research is pointing to the fact that science fiction probably led the way for us to imagine the unimaginable and now we can do something about it.

Deep within the brain there is an area in what might be called a small opening (one of several called ventricles) where a supply of stem cells is stored. Why are they there? At this point, we really don't know but it almost seems as though they are spare parts waiting to be used or, more correctly, waiting for us to learn how to use them. It may be quite sly of Mother Nature and we do know that our mother is taking care of us.

Yes, so there are lots of new findings related to not only the brain but to memory and cognition, our thinking processes. Too much of the media is focused on brain pathology and the loss of our cognitive processes and of our memory. This is most probably because that will catch people's attention and bump up viewing. In the service of collecting and holding viewers, the TV media folks often forget about the simple things we can do to help Mother Nature help us. And what we have to do is pretty simple.

First, we know that nerves, even damaged nerves, can regrow if we direct them and give them an opportunity to do so. We also know that just doing simple, regular exercise is important, in some way, to help our brains keep our memory sharp or sharper and protect our cognitive processes. I learned this while I was researching a book I was writing on multiple sclerosis (It's Not All in Your Head). One researcher was looking at three groups of individuals all over the age of 70 and she wanted to find out if a simple exercise like swimming could affect memory. What did she find out? Swimming indeed somehow improved the memory scores of the group that swam on a regular basis.

What else do we know can help those delicate little neurons in our brain reach out and touch each other in new and very exciting ways? How about something, again quite simple, like learning how to juggle? Juggling has been shown to improve memory, but not everyone is going to want to juggle. Okay, so you don't want to learn how to juggle and maybe it's not convenient to swim regularly, so what can you do?

Take a piece of advice from some incredible research that has been done over the years with a group of nuns living in Minnesota. Several, or should I say many, of the nuns live to the ripe old age of 100+. The oldest nun, who died with her cognition and her memory intact, was 105. What the nuns made it a point to do each year was to learn something new. Many of them took up learning a new language and this has shown the power of language to help maintain memory. It's very much like exercise for the brain, isn't it? And there’s lots of free language programs on the internet, so no expense necessary there.

The choice is up to you. You can swim, you can juggle, you can learn a new language or you can even learn simple computer coding. If you would like to find out more about simple coding, and please don't think this is limited to children because of the type of system used, go to my Computer page on my website ( and look at Ruby or some of the other simple coding systems. It's not all that complicated and all of the effort you put into it will result in a benefit greater than any investment you will ever make. Begin to invest in yourself in this way and you can pat yourself on the back repeatedly.

Do you have to become a victim of Alzheimer's disease? I have my doubts there, too. You read a lot about those plaques in the brain and they seem to be the reason memory degrades and that is the current belief about the basis of Alzheimer's. Did you know that these same plaques in skin cells?  The mystery of Alzheimer's is not that simply solved and it may be even much more than plaques or the genes that we carry in our DNA.

For a moment let's go back to that study of the nuns in Minnesota. What they found, in addition to how useful constant new learning can be, was that early childhood education was important, but also that nuns who lived a long life with intact memory had those plaques and tangles in their brains. These nuns, therefore, have the characteristic biological evidence of something like Alzheimer's, but they did not have the cognitive decline that would have been expected.

You are charge right now.  Set a plan for yourself regarding how you are going to protect your memory and your cognitive processes. It's up to you, not your doctor and not researchers. What will you decide to do?

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