How to keep your mind in shape
You’ve heard the expression “use it or lose it.” The advice is especially pertinent for adults in their 40s and beyond. That’s because our brains begin to shrink at that age, points out Dr. Herminio Cuervo, a Lakeland neurologist and Polk County Medical Association member.
“It’s just like a muscle,” says Dr. Cuervo, who advocates more than chess and crossword puzzles to exercise your mind. “Learn a foreign language. Learn something you have no clue what it is, including Chinese. Learn to play a musical instrument.”
Just as our joints can become more rigid, our brains can become more rigid. So resisting change is a “big mistake,” he advises. Instead, we need to be flexible. We need to stimulate our brains, encouraging the growth of new neurons and the interconnections between them.
Dr. Cuervo likens it to pruning a rosebush, a practice that stimulates new growth to the popular flowering plant. “The rosebush will grow for awhile and it will stall,” he explains. “When you trim, that somehow releases hormones that favor more growth.”
Keeping up with developing technology is an easy way to stimulate the brain. The “big bush” in medicine, he says, is converting patients’ records into the electronic format. “It is a challenge to learn and adjust, to utilize new tools,” Dr. Cuervo says. “They [practitioners] need to be forcing themselves to do it. It is very good for your brain to try to solve that challenge instead of just giving up.”
With the brain, there are spines that allow one neuron to connect with others. “The more stimulation the cell gets the more spines it will have,” he adds.
Our brains benefit from more stimulation than just working into the retirement years, especially if it’s at the same job we’ve already done for forty-plus years. That is because our brains learn to do our regular tasks more efficiently, using fewer neutrons.
And although reading is entertaining and relaxing, it’s “one dimensional,” he observes. “It doesn’t really make your brain think very hard. It’s passive,” he explains, “You are forced to deal with the vocabulary, which is good.” Reading is a better stimulus than television or the movies, he continues, but not as good as learning that musical instrument you’ve always wanted to learn, or taking up painting as a hobby.
Keeping physically active also is important to keep the blood flowing and oxygenate the body.
Although the decline begins in the 40s, it becomes more noticeable in the 50s, 60s and 70s. “[Cognitive decline] starts in a significant way in the 50s. It certainly becomes quite noticeable as some people enter their 60s and definitely in their 70s,” says Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg, clinical professor of neurology at New York University School of Medicine and author of “The Wisdom Paradox: How Your Mind Can Grow Stronger As Your Brain Grows Older” (Gotham, 2005).
You can tell your brain is declining if memory, attention, executive functions, decision-making and problem-solving abilities erode, he says. Dr. Goldberg practices what he preaches “by writing books, teaching students, and engaging in various intentional diversions as challenging activities,” he says.
“We tend to go into mental autopilot as we age,” Dr. Goldberg explains. “Because autopilot has made [our] lives effortless, it’s easy but does not serve the function of protecting one’s brain. This may be very good for practicing our professions, but it is not how you stimulate your brain.”
If you’ve already lost some ground, don’t worry. There’s still time to recapture some of your mental agility. Dr. Cuervo says, “You can recover a lot.”
story by DEBORAH DOUGLAS and CHERYL ROGERS