Cover Story: Smart Moves to Stay Sharp
A Puzzle (or Three) a Day
As a junior high school student, I once had to report on the evils of alcohol. The book I read warned that we are born with a fixed number of brain cells and that alcohol hastens the demise of those cells.
I went about repeating this fact to anyone who would listen. Unfortunately, I was spreading false information; that book had it all wrong. It turns out that alcohol—specifically wine and beer in moderate amounts (5 ounces per day)—may actually be good for your brain.
Dietician Lauren Dorgant says compounds called phytochemicals, present in red wine, may actually stimulate an enzyme that regulates the longevity of those cells. Other phytochemicals in beer and red wine serve as antioxidants, which prevent damage to brain cells.
More important—for both tipplers and teetotalers alike—current medical wisdom holds that the number of brain cells is not fixed at birth.
The downhill slope metaphor doesn’t hold when it comes to brain health—we don’t begin life on top of the mountain with a full complement of cells and travel always downward, losing cells along the way until we end in oblivion at the ski lodge.
Instead, imagine brain health as a series of trails, full of ups and downs. No two paths are alike.
We all start at different levels with potential pitfalls lurking in our future, but the level of mental and physical activity in which we engage, the foods we eat, and the groups we form are all factors that have a significant influence on the ease with which we will trod our path, the heights to which we will climb, and the extent to which we will enjoy the view.
“Prior to the mid-1970s, virtually everyone had a nihilistic view of aging,” says Gene Cohen, director of the Center on Aging, Health & Humanities at George Washington University. “People thought that negative change was our inevitable and unalterable destiny.”
Researchers came to realize that the problems associated with age were not intrinsic to aging, but rather due to certain diseases like Alzheimer’s. The field of geriatric medicine was born as the medical profession sought ways to treat and prevent such deteriorative diseases.
The next big change occurred decades later. “In 1998, we learned that the human brain has the ability to generate new brain cells,” says Dr. Paul Nussbaum, clinical neuropsychologist and adjunct associate professor of neurological surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
The implications of this finding were tremendous. People no longer had to passively accept that aging involved a loss of brain function. Instead, we can take proactive steps to strengthen our brains and maintain or even improve our cognitive abilities throughout life.
“When we challenge our brain, the brain changes,” says Cohen. “Brain cells form new connections between one another, enhancing communications.”
In the decade since the landmark finding on the human ability to grow new brain cells, a broad consensus has emerged about activities that can promote brain health. In his new book, Your Brain Health Lifestyle, Nussbaum organizes these activities into five buckets—physical activity, mental stimulation, spirituality, nutrition, and socialization.
I spoke to a number of NEA-Retired members who are working to stay mentally young and fit. Here are some of their strategies.
Completing one puzzle each day might give some people satisfaction, but Amy Jackson regularly polishes off three Sudoku puzzles daily. And she often has time for a couple of crosswords and a word jumble, which she happily admits is easier to solve now at age 55 than when she first attempted jumbles in the early 1980s.
Jackson, a former teacher, teaching assistant, and member of the Illinois Education Association Board of Directors, didn’t want to lose her mental edge when she retired. “You worry about people who retire and slowly deteriorate. I didn’t want that to happen to us since we are much too young and have way too much to look forward to,” emphasizes Jackson.
So she decided to keep her mind nimble with number puzzles. She asked her husband to explain the basics of Sudoku, a game he had discovered to be an effective stress-reliever when he was a school administrator. After breezing past the easy level games, Jackson now regularly solves puzzles of intermediate difficulty and, on occasion, tackles the ones rated most difficult.
Jackson is not just a numbers gal. She and her husband like to play another brain-engaging game called Upwords, which could be described as a three-dimensional version of Scrabble.
According to what the brain experts told us, Jackson has taken several smart steps. First, doing puzzles and word games has been shown to lower the risk of dementia, says Nussbaum.
By engaging in both number and word games, Jackson is exercising both the quantitative and verbal parts of the brain, a practice that Cohen applauds. “You want to diversify your activities,” says Cohen, “so that you can continue to challenge the strengths and capacities of your brain.”
Jackson is also a dedicated puzzler, which is key. “Developing a sense of mastery or control has been found to have positive health effects on individuals,” says Cohen. “These repeated feelings of mastery induce the immune system to produce more cells that ward off infection and fight disease.”
So try lots of different games and puzzles for variety, but also try to master one or more. That’s covering your bases when it comes to brain health.
Norman Victorson was a geography major in college, but after he graduated in 1965, geography became a little more complicated. As the old European empires started breaking up, dozens of new countries appeared on the scene, particularly in Africa.
That’s when Victorson embarked on his project to memorize all the countries in Africa. When he had fixed the countries firmly in his mind, he moved on to memorize their capitals.
Victorson is not a man to do things halfway. Once he had learned Africa, he moved on to the other continents. Even today, he is still determinedly plugging away at committing the island nations of the Pacific to memory.
This can-do spirit has served the former high school science teacher well during his 15 years of retirement. When he spoke to This Active Life, Victorson had just returned from another brain sharpening activity: his weekly piano lesson. “There’s an activity that requires a lot of brainwork!” he exclaims.
And piano isn’t Victorson’s only performance outlet. He has been taking hour-long tap dance classes since he retired. He says that tap dance requires much more mental focus than the jitterbug he learned decades ago. “With jitterbug, you pretty much do the same steps all the time,” says Victorson. “But with tap dance, if your head doesn’t work, your feet won’t work.”
Victorson’s menu of activities includes many that promote brain health. Tap dancing certainly gets the heart pumping, which is good, Nussbaum points out, since 25 percent of the blood flow from each heartbeat goes to the brain.
Dr. Arthur Kramer, director of the Biomedical Imaging Center at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, recently completed a study of older adults who participated in 45-60 minutes of cardiovascular exercise per day, three days a week for six months.
“We found increases in the volume of both gray matter [neurons] and white matter [the connections among neurons],” Kramer says. “We also found more efficient neural networks that support improvements in attention, memory, and decision-making.”
In short: put on your dancing shoes…or your tennis shoes, or your walking shoes, or even your swimsuit. Getting your heart beating turns out to be a smart move for your brain.
Every morning, Natalie Godin rises at 6:30 a.m. to have a hearty breakfast and head over to the clubhouse at King’s Point in Taramac, the adult community just north of Miami Beach, Florida, where she makes her home.
At the clubhouse, she participates in three morning exercise classes—aerobics, water exercises, light weight training—whichever happens to be offered that morning. “Whatever they are doing to get the heart going, that’s what I like doing,” says Godin, who at age 75 isn’t on any medications and credits her good health to exercise and good genes.
After exercising and socializing with friends between classes, Godin heads home around 11:30 a.m. to make her regular lunch—a mandarin orange chicken salad. Godin used to buy a similar salad at Wendy’s, but she discovered that she could save some money by making the dressing at home with a simple list of ingredients—lettuce, chicken, almonds, mandarin oranges, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and seasonings. “I’ve been eating it every day for lunch and I haven’t gotten sick of it yet,” says Godin. “When I’m on a cruise, I don’t even enjoy eating the food because I miss my salad!”
Some folks might like a bit more dietary variety, but everyone can learn from how Godin combines exercise and a healthy diet. Citrus fruits like the oranges Godin uses in her daily lunch recipe contain organic compounds called flavonoids that protect the brain from the cell-damaging reactive atoms called free radicals.
Though many people obsess about keeping their bodies thin, having a fat-free brain would be disastrous. Nussbaum says that our brains are actually 60 percent fat, which is essential for the efficient flow of information. To ensure the healthy function of brain cells, doctors like Nussbaum recommend that we add foods containing omega-3 fatty acids to our diets.
Certain kinds of fish, including salmon, herring, albacore tuna, mackerel, and sardines are exceptionally rich in these fatty acids. In September 2006, New Scientist magazine cited medical studies indicating that omega-3 fatty acids could promote neuronal growth and allow the brain to repair damages.
That is not to say that you should eat mackerel morning, noon, and night. As in many areas of health, moderation is a key to well-being. “As cavemen, we ate one good fat for each bad fat.
Today, we eat 16 times as much bad fat as good fat,” says Nussbaum. Fast foods and junk food make up much of this unhealthy imbalance. Bringing a variety of fruits and vegetables back to our tables—making our plates look like a rainbow, as Nussbaum puts it—could go a long way toward rebalancing our diets for the benefits of our hearts and our brains.
What’s more, Nussbaum says eating can be a great brain health activity to the extent that it is a social time. He encourages people to eat with friends and family—or even strangers. Talking and telling stories encourages brain activity while simultaneously creating the space for a pleasurable, stress-free time.
Though Godin retired from teaching elementary school nine years ago, she still meets up with a group of her former colleagues, to watch movies and chat over food. “My whole thrust is to enjoy whatever I do,” says Godin. “A lot of people come over to my house because they know that I enjoy cooking and entertaining.”
Enjoying what you do—it’s a trait that Godin, Victorson, and Jackson all seem to have in common. As they continue to explore the possibilities and freedoms of retirement, all three have found activities, groups, and hobbies that promise to keep them physically fit and mentally sharp for many years to come.
Study a Language? Oui!
The educational, physical, and sensory aspects of traveling can be beneficial to your brain. And you can get a great mental workout if you prepare by studying the language spoken at your destination. In preparation for a 2005 trip to Paris with her sister, Anne McEvoy Carmouche (a retired elementary teacher living in St. Paul, Minnesota ) polished up the French she had studied in high school and college. She developed enough competence to wow her sister with her ability to order food in restaurants and ask for directions.
Brain Health Tip #2
Left? Right? Both!
Each hemisphere of our brain controls the opposite side of our body (the left hemisphere controls the right side, and vice-versa). To make sure we are stimulating our entire brains, Dr. Paul Nussbaum says we should strive to engage in activities like knitting, dancing, gardening, or playing a musical instrument that involve both hands and thus both sides of the brain. “We should aspire to having an ambidextrous brain,” he advises.