Memories and Your Healthy Brain
We have all probably heard that we only use 10% of our brains, or that tuna (or eggs, or fill in the blank) is brain food and will make you smarter or improve your memory. Maybe you’ve heard, or seen ads, that doing certain kinds of word games will help your memory. None of the adages or old wife’s tales have any scientific basis and none really work, or everyone would be doing them. Yet there is always some modern, snake-oil salesman trying to take your money for a new supplement, or new app to help you. Today we will talk about things that you can do, that are proven to help your memory and protect your brain from some of the effects of aging.
Our memories are far from perfect and most of us will forget the majority of what we experience today, by tomorrow. Our brains have not evolved to remember names, catalog everything we encounter or remember to do something 'later' which is why we end up with a ‘tip of the tongue' slip where our memory refuses to give us a word, even though we know it. Blocking on a word happens when there is only partial or weak activation of the neurons that connect to the word you are looking for. It’s most common with proper nouns, happens in every age group, and is not anything to worry about. Our imperfect memories are one reason that pilots, for example, use checklist every time. A few terms worth mentioning now because they will come up again later in this discussion:
Prefrontal cortex: The thinking part of our brain crucial for decision-making and focusing our attention.
Temporal lobe: Houses and sends info to the hippocampus.
Hippocampus: The key part of turning our experiences into memories.
These three parts of the brain are closely related and are all tied to our memories and involved when there is Alzheimer's or Dementia - it's critical to take care of our brain. Since Alzheimer's now affects 1 in10 people over 65, around 5.5 million people, and that number is expected to reach 13 million by 2050. So how can we improve our memory and actively protect our brain from age relative decline? While, according to several sources used for this blog, there is no magic pill, supplement, or app that will do that, it is pretty easy. All the experts agree on some basic things that you do to give your memory and long-term brain health an edge. I will list them here and then go into each of them in a little more depth in the following paragraphs.
1. diet, 2. Sleep, 3. Exercise- physical and mental, 4. Kill ants- more on what that means below.
Diet. I will start here in the hope that I don't lose anyone, and I will try not to sound preachy. Our brain is the most complex thing known to humankind. And one of the most important things we can do to it is feed it properly. At 60-80% fat and a significant portion of water, it's important to give those cells enough healthy fat to rebuild with. Staying properly hydrated keeps those nutrients flowing where they need to go so the brain can generate new cells or repair existing ones. We also need to be mindful of eating anti-inflammatory and avoiding foods that cause inflammation. Remember the 5.5 million people afflicted with Alzheimer's disease? That disease is widely thought to be brought on or at least exasperated by inflammation in the brain. There is also the problem of Diabetes or pre-diabetes (insulin resistance) damaging blood vessels, especially the tiny ones in the brain which contributes to our brain not functioning as well as they could. So what should you eat and not eat? In Dishing Out Nutrition Podcast, registered dieticians, as well as several other experts, all have their own ideas, and not surprisingly there is a ton of overlap. So here are some Dos and don'ts to put you on the right path.
Do eat salmon and other cold water oily fish for the Omega 3's. Eat eggs for the protein and vitamin D. Eat blueberries and other high antioxidant berries for their anti-inflammatory properties. Eat avocados since they have lots of healthy fat, protein, and fiber. Walnuts pack the best punch of nuts and seeds as a brain super food, but any nuts and seeds are winners. Healthy oils such as olive, hazelnut, avocado, and coconut are good for the brain. And finally dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa) for the flavonoids in the chocolate and the endorphins that a treat will release. With all of those, go for wild caught, or cage free, organic, or non-gmo whenever possible.
Don’t eat added sugar, refined carbs, (think white flour, white rice, white potatoes, even though they aren’t refined )processed foods and gluten. The refined and processed foods generally don’t have enough fiber and end up spiking blood sugar, followed by a crash, which eventually leads to insulin resistance. Gluten should generally be avoided because recent estimates are that 1/3 of Americans have some form of gluten sensitivity- and if that's you, then it will cause inflammation -and do you really want an inflamed brain? For more info I recommend Dr. Perlmutter’s book, Grain Brain.
Sleep. Those of you that read our blogs regularly have probably noticed that sleep is mentioned frequently. There is a good reason. Study after study proves that adults need 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night. Less than that, your prefrontal cortex doesn't function as well and it's responsible for us paying attention, making executive decisions, and moving experiences to the temporal lobes and ultimately the hippocampus so we can remember them. Then, later during REM sleep, our brain cleans up from the day, moving some memories to long term and getting rid of things we don't need. Not getting enough rem sleep can contribute to long term memory problems. Additionally, lack of sleep makes us crave energy and therefore quick fixes that aren't good for us, such as processed sugar and refined carbs, caffeine, and nicotine... So if we're trying to cut back on any of that, lack of sleep is sabotaging us. To emphasize those points, researchers took a group of healthy young men with no medical concerns and put them to the test. After 2 weeks of 5.5 hours of sleep per night they all had insulin resistance and higher blood sugar numbers. Insulin resistance leads to diabetes which increases risks for damage to blood vessels, especially the tiny ones in the brain. Finally, lack of sleep is believed to contribute to vascular dementia, and untreated sleep apnea may increase risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
Exercise. There are two kinds of exercise to talk about and they both have proven benefits for your brain.
1. Physical exercise. You don't need a gym membership, fancy running shoes, or home workout machines to experience rewards. Simply moving your body has immediate and positive benefits for your brain, including focus and mood. The effects last hours longer than the exercise and helps protect us from conditions like depression, Alzheimer's, and dementia. Dr.Wendy Suzuki was studying how the brief electrical activity in our brains become memories and while doing that research inadvertently used herself as a guinea pig when she noted marked improvement in her own memory after starting an exercise program in the middle of her research. The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise, even brisk walking counts. If it is good for your heart, it's good for your brain.
2. Brain Exercise. According to Dr. Lisa Genova and other experts there are no gimmicks for improving our memory, but it is proven that learning new things builds neural anatomical and neuro chemical connections. Our brain is dynamic and constantly changing and by learning, we help it change for the better. Science also shows that about 1/3 of our memory capacity is genetic, but we can influence the other 2/3 by how we change our brains. As memory expert Jim Kwik likes to say, "there is no such thing as a good or bad memory just a trained or untrained memory". In his tips for improving memory, he uses the acronym M.O.M. for motivation, observation, and mechanics. You first must identify your motivation for remembering something like someone’s name, for example. If there's a chance that person would become a client with $100,000 per year, you would be highly motivated to remember their name, right? Then you have to be observant-pay attention. Involve your prefrontal cortex so that your brain really processes the information. And finally the mechanics- actually training your memory and using things like Memory Palaces or Kwik Brains body parts technique for memorizing short ( up to 10) lists of things or words. Last, but not least, science supports the idea that doing puzzles, word games etc. can help your memory by building new neural pathways but with one caveat, they have to be new. Once the newness wears off and it's just repetition or something you already know how to do, the benefits are greatly reduced. So do something new, challenge yourself to figure it out, and get good at it.
Kill ants. Dr. Daniel Amen coined this phrase in his book, Change Your Brain Every Day, but I'm going to add a few things to it because it seems like a good place to stick a few relevant, if somewhat random, ideas. 1. ANTS stands for automatic negative thoughts. We all have them to varying degrees when things don’t go our way. Unfortunately, these thoughts do more than sour our mood; they take up time and space in our prefrontal cortex so that we can't pay attention to the here and now, and attention is critical to memory. 2. Positive peer group. It's said by countless executive coaches, motivation experts, and self-help gurus- you are or become the average of the five people you spend the most time with. Do your five people live by the things that are important to you? Are they growing and improving themselves? 3. Clean your environment and reduce stress. Whether you admit it or not, clutter adds to your stress, whereas an orderly environment helps you focus. Stress releases cortisol which blocks the prefrontal cortex and therefore negatively impacts our memory. 4. Wear a helmet. Science proves that impacts to our head cause brain injury even if it isn't a notable concussion and those smaller impacts add up to increased risk of memory loss, and Alzheimer's.
While there is no easy button to have a better memory, there are things you can do with your diet and lifestyle that are proven to have immediate, noteworthy, and lasting effects on our brain health and none of them are hard. Add in the compound effect, where a bunch of small actions yield big results, and you could start noticing changes in no time.
Doug Davis, CHC