The old adage, “use it or lose it” really is true when it comes to our brains. Problem solving, processing speed and thinking can all go downhill as we age, says Dr. Fraser Smith, a professor, researcher and clinician at the National University of Health Sciences near Chicago.
But there’s good news too. We can take steps to maintain, or even improve, our cognitive abilities by learning and doing new skills and activities, says Smith. Our brains respond to the expectations we place on them.
While we naturally lose some brain mass with aging, the research shows that we can conserve brain cells and even sprout new connections into our 90s, he says.
Country Guide reached out to Smith, who grew up in Windsor, Ont., and graduated from the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine in Toronto, for tips and strategies for improving memory, language and motor skills.
Neuroscience has shown that our brains are not fixed. Instead, they make and break new connections all the time. Smith authored The Complete Brain Exercise Book — Train your Brain! (Robert Rose, 2015) as “a practical guide to giving your brain new ways to learn and work, with a healthy diet to support your overall well-being.”
With 150 brain training exercises and 100 recipes, the book is a collection of the things that Smith says we can do to sharpen our memory and cognitive function without spending a lot of money.
“If we don’t make demands on one part of the brain, we will lose function,” says Smith, noting that by relying on GPS we are losing some of our ability to read maps.
“It’s like taking an empty field on a farm that’s been lying fallow, and starting to till it and planting seeds. The brain responds,” says Smith.
Begin by looking honestly at yourself. Smith recommends assessing which functions are most in need of improvement and focusing on activities that will benefit these areas. Are we noticing that we are having trouble recalling words? Or have become clumsier? If you aren’t sure, check with your friends or family or use an online assessment tool, he says.
Then create a brain exercise routine. In his book, Smith divides brain training exercises into nine parts which include:
1. Mental speed: How fast you think, plus your overall problem-solving ability.
2. Visual-spatial intelligence: Directions; noticing things such as colours, the details in a room; remembering what people look like.
3. Vocabulary, speaking, language acquisition.
4. Sensory processing: Using information provided by the senses (sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell); recognizing things.
6. Memory augmentation: Remembering names, tasks, and details.
7. Sleep: Getting to sleep, falling asleep and having a restful sleep.
8. Sports and recreation: Moving and building strength, flexibility and good circulation to the brain, heart and the rest of the body.
9. Social support and emotional health: Feeling generally at peace with oneself and others, feeling the ability to create and contribute, and feeling loved and cared for.
Smith suggests getting started by doing one or two exercises per category and then adding two new activities from one of the categories, choosing a different category each week.
Another option is to go to literacynet.org and search for its Find Your Strengths self-assessment tool.
Also pay attention to brain hygiene. Sleep is essential for repairing brain cells. If you have trouble getting quality sleep, would a CPAP machine be helpful? Could you walk more (getting a dog that needs to be walked can be helpful), or join an aquatic exercise class at the local pool? Keeping socially active also has strong supporting effects on the brain.
Then consider brain food. Our diets support brain function, says Smith. It’s best to eat foods that supply steady sources of energy, as well as lots of fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, nuts, seeds and whole grains. Avoid refined carbs.
And make sure you do something outside your comfort zone. By doing something novel, something that’s not a part of our daily routine, we can increase brain function, says Smith. One of the worst things we can do is to stick to the same daily routines and not learn new things.
Learning a foreign language is a powerful way to wake up the brain, says Smith. Other suggestions include joining a Tai Chi or gentle yoga class or volunteering.
The important thing is to try new things, says Smith. If you have always been a hands-on kind of person but not a reader, join a book club. Likewise, if you have been a reader, take up a hobby or craft. “This pulls on the brain to reorganize itself,” he says.
It’s worth it, Smith says. Unless there’s a medical reason such as advanced dementia, taking small steps to strengthen our brain function can make a difference.
Do you have trouble remembering names or learning new information? Dave Farrow, holder of the Guinness World Record for Greatest Memory, says we can train our brains to improve our memories.
Farrow should know. To earn the Guinness Record he memorized and recalled the sequence of 59 separate decks of shuffled playing cards, 3,068 cards, with just one error.
Farrow is quick to point out that his incredible memory is not a natural gift. In fact, growing up in Kitchener, Ont., he struggled in school and was diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD at the age of 14. Determined to “turn these challenges into successes,” he learned everything he could about how the mind worked.
In the days before the internet, this meant reading a lot of books. Farrow became a speed reader and “got good at the art of memory,” stumbling upon new techniques, or brain hacks, along the way, he says. He has also taught himself several languages.
Guide reached out to Farrow, who now calls Niagara Falls, Ont., home, for tips on how we can avoid the embarrassment of forgetting someone’s name and stop spending so much time looking for our keys.
One of the ways to improve our memories is to pay more attention, says the author and public speaker. Our brain’s default setting is to be unfocused, he explains. We operate on autopilot and don’t take notice of things we do routinely. For example, if you forget where you leave your keys, you could stimulate your brain to pay attention by picturing a little explosion going off as you set the keys down, he says.
It’s common to have trouble remembering names because names are abstract, says Farrow. Creating a visual image to go with the name makes it much more memorable, he says. “You can turn something you can’t visualize into something you can see,” he says. For example, to remember his first name, Dave, you could picture a big wave crashing over him. To help remember his last name, Farrow, you could picture an “F plus an arrow.” “This takes practice but it works incredibly well,” he says.
Remembering a list of unrelated objects also poses a challenge for most people but by creating a story that connects the items, it becomes much easier, says Farrow. For example, to remember the words, cat, watermelon and lake, you could picture a cat pushing a watermelon out of a lake.
Because focusing takes effort, Farrow discovered that focusing intensely for just five or six minutes at a time followed by five or six minutes of rest allowed him to study for hours without getting tired, he says.
Farrow’s website, Brainhackers.com, is a digital magazine that offers brain-based advice for personal and professional improvement.