Over the last few years, I have painfully watched my father-in-law suffer the ravages of Alzheimer’s Dementia. He went from being a robust, intelligent and wise football coach who served as a mentor and even father figure to many young men to one who could barely recognize his own daughter. Experiencing this added a personal dimension to my passion for the prevention of dementia or for what we’ll call “brain training”.
The world of wellness has long been concerned with the prevention of heart and other vascular disease, cancer, lung disease, diabetes and such – what we call the diseases of civilization. Recent discoveries have added brain disease to the list of preventable and even reversible conditions. While we once thought of the brain as a fixed mass of neurons which gradually deteriorate and die off with age, we now speak of neuroplasticity and neurogenesis. These terms refer to our brain’s constant reorganization and redevelopment and the actual growth of new brain cells. These findings are leading wellness providers to find practical ways to help those we serve improve their brain health. And it’s not just about preventing dementia. We now believe that training can improve our existing mental capacity for any task that we are called to undertake.
What does brain training look like? It mostly involves the same elements that I call “the pillars of wellness”. These are a healthy natural diet, vigorous daily exercise and regular movement throughout the day, stress management, adequate high quality sleep and avoidance of substances which harm our brains. What becomes interesting are the particular recommendations within these areas which apply specifically to brain health. We love to teach about vegetables, fruits, spices, nuts, oils and even meats which have exciting applications to brain health. We also love to start folks in basic forms of exercise and then progress to more complex and challenging forms which really light up the brain, stimulating it’s many different areas. Regarding stress, our relationships can be either a major area of harm or if they are healthy a source of strengthening and healing for our brains. Strong social bonds are truly one of the most important elements in “brain training”
Beyond these basics, we have learned of many other ways to stimulate the brain. These involve novelty and challenge. While I have nothing against Sudoku or crossword puzzles, we have found many activities which are superior. You may wonder about video games and it’s likely that some help and others do not. I’ll have more to say about those in future posts. In terms of learning new things and cultivating hobbies and interests, I would argue that developing a passion for some special interest or activity is crucial. Then you will not say “well it’s time for my brain training activity, need to get that out-of-the-way.” Rather you go to bed and wake up thinking about it and can’t wait to get into the garden or on that new bicycle or off on that hike or whatever passion you have cultivated.
In the coming weeks, I’ll fill in the details and go into much of the fascinating information that I’m seeking to apply in my own life and that we are teaching in our programs at VitalSigns.