Jewish World Review Oct. 6, 2004 / 21 Tishrei 5765
Get that flabby brain in shape
Are you having more and more trouble remembering names, dates and telephone numbers? Have you been misplacing your car keys, your cell phone, or the remote control with increasing regularity? If so, chances are you may be suffering from the effects of what is referred to in the medical community as "getting old."
Of course, a sudden loss in memory skills could be a sign of a serious illness like Alzheimer's or dementia and should be brought to the attention of a physician, but most of us think of the gradual erosion of the brain's short term memory ability as a normal part of the aging process. It's just something we have to accept and make allowances for, right? Perhaps not.
Recent studies have shown that the old assumption that brain cells simply die off as we get older is incorrect. It turns out that the health of the brain (like the rest of the body) tends to decline as we get older largely as a result of increased inactivity and not as a natural part of the aging process. And what's more, there is something you can do about it.
There is a new brain exercise program that I predict will soon cause a sensation among those of us who are sick and tired of having to constantly repeat the question - "what was your name again?" It's called neurobics.
The word neurobics is a play on the term aerobics, which describes an exercise regimen that keeps the body fit by stimulating the respiratory and circulatory systems. Neurobics is designed to keep the brain healthy by utilizing the five senses in unique and unconventional ways that serve to keep the connections between brain cells active and stimulated.
Brain specialists now believe that the onset of senility is greatly accelerated when connections between memory cells become inactive because of long term disuse. As we get older, we tend to become set in our ways and stick to our routines, and as a result the brain has less and less work to do. This is the equivalent of having you brain sit around on the couch all day, and it isn't good for your mental health.
Neurobic exercises allow these dormant inter-cell connections to be recharged by breaking up one's daily thinking "routine". You surprise your brain by doing certain things differently than you normally would, and this acts as a form of mental calisthenics.
One simple neurobic exercise is to try doing things you'd normally do with your dominant hand with the non-dominant hand. If you are right-handed and you try and write with your left, the right side of your brain (which controls the left side of your body) is suddenly forced to activate motor control neurons that are normally allowed to sleep soundly during the writing process. Seldom-used neural pathways are stimulated and the brain gets a good workout.
Another good exercise is to close your eyes while you're doing something simple like taking a shower or walking around your bedroom. Suddenly your brain is forced to use your other four senses in ways it is not used to.
Some other suggestions include rearranging your living or office space regularly, playing games that focus on using the fives senses in unique ways, and periodically taking a different route to places you regularly travel to.
The important thing is to break up your mental routine. It takes some effort, but it might help you to live more fully and independently as you get older.
So remember this new word and the concept behind it. What was that word again? Oh yeah, neurobics. Looks like my brain could use a few laps around the track.
Bill Ferguson is a columnist for the Macon (Ga.) Telegraph. Comment by clicking here.
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© 2004, Macon (Ga.) Telegraph Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.