Memory is a skill that most of us would like to sharpen. In addition to providing us with convenience and confidence, memory is a sign of our overall health. Your brain is not separate from the rest of your body—it is totally integrated with each and every one of the ten thousand trillion cells that make up your body.
All of the same strategies that help to develop our memory develop the rest of our brain function as well; our ability to learn new skills, assimilate new information, and to make better decisions can all be improved with effort.
There are several crucial factors that result in excellent memory, here are the major ones:
Excellent Blood flow is essential for optimal memory. Much of what we know to be “senile dementia”, or forgetfulness due to aging, is do to tiny obstructions in blood flow. In fact, we now know that even in people over 50 with “normal” memory, nearly half have “silent brain infarcts”. These are small areas of the brain that have actually died due to obstruction of blood flow in tiny blood vessels. There are several simple strategies that can improve blood flow in the brain, here are some of the best:
Exercise: Cardiovascular exercise creates a demand for more oxygen rich blood in your body. Your heart rate increases, as does your blood pressure. When you exercise on a regular basis, you keep your blood vessels, heart, and lungs in prime condition. To learn more about how to include cardiovascular exercise in your life read my Cardio 101 article. Strength Training has been the center of much research on improving brain function. In particular, high-intensity weightlifting has proven very effective for improving your brain. The increase in blood pressure associated with vigorous lifting in conjunction with the demand for blood is attributed for these beneficial effects. To learn more about developing an effective weight training program read Strength Training 101.
Nutrition: What’s good for the heart is good for the brain. This is an important axiom. Unfortunately, nutrition for a healthy heart is often disseminated more for the health of corporate bottom line than for the health of you! My article on Cholesterol goes over in detail what types of foods to eat for a healthy heart—all of that information translates directly to a healthy brain.
Supplementation: The single simplest thing you can do to improve your brain starting right now is to take a high quality purified fish oil. People consuming the highest amount of fish oil have a 50-80% reduction in Alzheimer’s risk! The omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil help your blood vessels to function smoothly. They decrease inflammation, improve cholesterol levels, and normalized hormone profiles in your brain. Be certain to use a high quality product where you can get 2-3 grams of omega-3 fatty acids that are mercury and PCB free. My favorite omega-3 product is available at a discount in my store. For more information on omega-3’s, click here.
Oxidation is implicated in the decline of the brain. Poor diet over the years, exposure to environmental pollutants, lack of rest, and stress all contribute to oxidation. Oxidation results in cell death within the brain and is also implicated in neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Read my article on Antioxidants for more information on this topic. That article deals with nutrition and supplementation in detail. The best-known brain antioxidant, Bacopa Monnieri, is discussed in that article as well as in these articles.
Happiness is not only a hallmark of a healthy brain; it is essential for its development. More and more research is mounting regarding the devastating effects of stress and depression on the brain. Taken to their extreme, these negative emotions lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD results when negative emotions either go on long enough, or surpass a threshold of intensity, after which the brain is physically changed and unable to shed the negative pattern. Picture a bowling lane with a rut that crosses the center and heads toward the gutter—no matter how skillfully you role the ball it winds up in the gutter. This is the predicament of your brain when it is chronically stressed or depressed: whatever experiences come into your life wind up being colored as stressful or depressing.
Stress and depression play out physically in many ways—some of which we are just beginning to understand. We know that stress results in increases of norepinephrine and cortisol—both of which increase the oxidation of your brain when levels are too high. These hormones actually kill brain cells! We also know that when you experience these emotions with intensity you created neurological patterns in your brain that are very difficult to overcome.
If you struggle with these issues check out the stress reduction page on this website. You will find several practical tools that you can use to create positive patterns in your brain. Going back to our bowling analogy, you can create a groove in the bowling lane that gives you a strike every time.
Will Power/Supply and Demand. There is a term used in neurophysiology (the study of the function of the nervous system and brain) that I like very much: plasticity. The brain is plastic in its nature, that is to say that it is changeable, malleable, and not static. When we are in-utero it is dark and sounds are muffled. There is not much change in tastes that we are exposed to. As a result there is little external stimulation, with the exception of movement. As an infant grows inside the womb it is exposed to the various movements and changes in position of the mother, and the infant does a fair share of its own moving. The results of this phenomenon are profound. By the time a baby is born most of the neurons (nerves) associated with the largest portion of the brain (the cerebrum) have actually died due to lack of stimulation! To the contrary, the neurons in a relatively tiny part of the brain called the cerebellum are kept alive. The cerebellum is responsible for processing information having to do with movement. Since the baby experiences a great deal of such information that part of the brain is stimulated, preserved, and developed. As a result, this tiny, walnut-sized portion of your brain has as many neurons now as the rest of your brain and body combined!
Just as in the womb, the demand you place upon your brain today creates the brain that you will function with tomorrow. Challenging activities will cause you to create new networks within your brain, and to use more of your brain. To the contrary, activities that are mentally passive, such as television, do not place a demand on your brain, and as a result its powers weaken. Following are some of the best activities for to challenge and stimulate your brain:
- Ping Pong. This game is not only fun, it is excellent for your brain! The game demands planning, speed, and coordination. The spirit of competition and desire to perform better adds to the demand this game places on your brain.
- Play a musical instrument. Playing music demands creativity, coordination, mathematics (if you’re dealing with music theory), new language skills (if reading music), and coordination between several parts of your body—piano demands both hands and a foot working in different ways, flute demands both hands and the breath, etc.
- Chess and word games such as scrabble, suduko, and crossword puzzles all demand planning and mental reaching. While these are excellent mental exercises, be certain games and puzzles of this type are not your only mental exercise—you’ll want to include other mental exercises such as those described above that demand physical coordination also.
- Rewarding, challenging work. Retirement is an alien concept in the healthiest cultures. For many, the idea of retirement is a sweet one due to the fact that our jobs don’t excite us. Rather than stopping work, think of retirement as a chance to participate in meaningful service. Research shows a definite correlation with retirement and cognitive decline. In fact, most Americans begin watching a full 40 hours of television after retirement! Television becomes a full time job! Travel, learn, and seek out ways to make a difference in the world—it’ll keep you young!
Excellent, sound sleep is essential for optimal brain function. The current theory on how memory works attributes a crucial role to sleep in the consolidation of memory. It is thought that during sleep your brain is organizing memory of recent experiences for future recall. We all have had times where deep sleep has not been possible for one reason or another (hopefully a fun reason). When we try to recollect those times we often describe them as “foggy” or otherwise unclear. To learn more about how to achieve sound sleep, click here.
In the end, it is our brain that integrates and processes the many functions of our bodies as well as our consciousness. To the extent that our nervous systems are able to adapt to new information, to have empathy for others, and to view our experiences objectively and with compassion, we are able to function as human beings. A healthy brain means not only remembering where you put your keys, it means being able to chart a course toward self-improvement and toward creating a better world.
If we do not take the time to understand how our own minds work we risk becoming a victim of outside influence. As such we are susceptible to anger, hate, frustration, and stress—all of which are symptoms of a mind stuck in patterns of thought inflicted upon it. When we realize that the mind is truly a blank canvass, one upon which we can consciously direct the paint-strokes of our intention, we create qualities of beauty and harmony: intelligence, compassion, joy, and love.
The Healthy Brain Checklist
- 20-30 minutes of vigorous activity on most days of the week.
- Eat a healthy diet as described in The Cholesterol Article
- Use your will power daily; learn a musical instrument, play ping-pong, or start a new project that demands you to learn new things.
- Begin taking 2-3 grams of omega-3’s per day.
- Practice some form of stress reduction—this not only makes you feel better, it creates positive changes in stress hormones. These hormones can increase the rate of oxidation of your brain (that’s bad), and activities like meditation reverse this and may actually heal damage.
- Take a food-based antioxidant daily.
- If you have experienced a decline in your memory begin taking Bacopa Monnieri.