Top: Psychologist Dr. Robin Walsh tells Kiwanis of Dougherty members the benefits of adopting healthy lifestyle practices for improved brain performance. (Photos by David Shivers)
Middle: Doug Lorber assists Dr. Robin Walsh with a simple exercise testing brain reaction time.
Bottom: Dr. Walsh is greeted by Magistrate Judge Baxter Howell after the Kiwanis meeting.
With baby-boomers hitting or well into their senior years and Generation Xers on the cusp of middle age, protecting and enhancing brain function is an increasingly relevant topic. Albany psychologist Dr. Robin Walsh brought a message to the Kiwanis Club of Dougherty County on July 14 about new research findings and ways to achieve better brain function as we age.
According to Walsh, her message was about brain fitness and “pertaining to how it’s related to your mental sharpness. Keep in mind this is not the same as IQ, which really can’t be changed too much, but it’s more to do with mental sharpness, which you do have some control over.” More and more, she said, research is showing “that you actually do have a good bit of control of aging of your brain.”
Dr. Walsh administered a brief “brain teaser” exercise to determine mental acuity, “which is something you can work on. The benefit of this type of exercise is to recognize how the brain works. For example, our brain tends to see what we want to see or expect to see.” The value of the exercise, she added, “is stretching your brain beyond its normal ways of thinking. The more you practice teasing your brain, the better mental sharpness you will have.”
The goal is maintaining the brain’s ability to function while continuing to make new neural connections. “Connections between the neurons,” said Walsh, “are necessary for the brain to operate at its best.”
So how can brain fitness be achieved? Dr. Walsh described several relevant factors. “We can control the health of our brains by making specific lifestyle choices, regardless of our age, which will improve the health of our brain.” Individuals can make choices that influence neural plasticity, which is defined as “the changing of the structure, function and organization of neurons in response to new experiences.”
Specifically, there are seven areas where choices can be made that can determine future brain performance:1) staying mentally active and challenging yourself; 2) choosing foods that protect brain cells and promote brain health, while avoiding foods that age the brain; 3) staying physically active; 4) getting enough sleep; 5) staying socially engaged; 6) nurturing your spiritual side; and 6) talking with your doctor. Following these guidelines can hold off mental decline by an average of nine years, depending what is done and when it is started, according to Walsh.
To stay mentally active, Walsh encourages people to work for as long as they can, or to find volunteer activities. Also, taking classes or working crosswords, Sudoku, or brain teasers helps, as do such things as writing, chess, drawing and painting, playing a musical instrument, and even video games, which can enable creative problem solving and faster thinking. Other options are changing your usual routine (such as your driving route from one place to another), switching to your non-dominant hand, and tutoring or teaching others, which relies on applying past experiences and drawing on problem-solving skills.
Diet plays a vital role in brain fitness. It should include foods containing DHA (a building block important to brain development that can protect against brain disorders) such as olive oil, salmon, fortified juice, milk, eggs, or yogurt. Another important brain-health supporter is Vitamin E, which is found in milk, butter, eggs, vegetable oils, nuts, wheat germ, and dark leafy greens. Some of these foods also contain the three B vitamins (folic acid, B6 and B12) that can help decrease the risk of dementia, and fruits such as red grapes, cranberries, and blueberries have been shown to reduce inflammation injurious to brain health. Keeping calorie intake has also been linked to decreased mental decline in later life.
There are also foods that have been determined unhealthy for good brain function: white-flour baked goods, alcohol, hard cheeses and processed dairy products; sugary foods including soft drinks, fruit drinks, and sweet breakfast cereals; creamy sauces; hydrogenated oils and transfats; mayonnaise, and packaged convenience foods and fast foods.
Good physical health is closely linked to brain health, Dr. Walsh emphasized, because it encourages the growth of new brain cells and connections. She urged 30 minutes of exercise every day. Physical exercise helps improve blood flow and oxygen to the brain for the growth of brain cell branches (dandrites) and brain density. Loss of brain density is a major factor in mental decline. Also, weight-lifting or other weight-bearing exercise enhances levels of serotonin and dopamine, two chemicals directly related to brain aging.
Getting 7 to 8 hours of good sleep nightly is vital for brain health. According to research findings, sleep helps keep the brain healthy by giving the body a chance to clean toxins from the brain as well as making repairs.
Staying socially active with family and friends is a key to happiness and brain health, as social activity promotes creation of new brain cells and supports brain repair
Good mental health practices are needed. Find healthy ways to cope with stress, because excessive stress over time kills brain cells and ages the brain more quickly. A positive outlook keeps the brain open to new possibilities, while negativity can prevent continued learning and growth, leading to faster brain aging.
Nurturing the spiritual self – through prayer, meditation, reflection, and time-outs – gives the brain space to make connections between the heart, mind, and body. The brain is wired for spiritual experiences.
Finally, talking to your doctor can produce ways to improve brain fitness. For example, low-dose aspirin has been found in some studies to possibly reduce the risk of dementia by 10 to 50 percent. Improving your blood pressure can decrease the risk of cognitive decline in old age. If you are diabetic, ask how to improve your blood sugar, since diabetes is an important risk factor for dementia. And, keep a check on your cholesterol levels; high levels of bad LDL increase dementia risk, as do low levels of good HDL cholesterol.
“Fitness of the brain is as important as physical health,” Dr. Walsh continued, “maybe even more, because you can have a perfectly-fit body, but if your brain is diseased then it doesn’t do you any good. Your brain is responsible for directing operations of everything you do and every thought you have. Fitness of the brain plays a critical role in learning, decision-making, working, playing…even your personality.”