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Lower Your Risk of Memory Loss Through Brain Fitness

Dementia strikes an alarming number of people in King County. According to a King 5 report, in late 2012, over 150,000 people locally have Alzheimers or Dementia. King County’s population was just over 2 million in 2013. That’s an incidence of approximately 1 in 7 which is why most of us know someone who has dementia or someone who worries about memory loss. Medicine is still trying to understand how to delay, halt or predict dementia. We can’t cure it but we may be able to reduce our risk up to  50% by taking physical and mental steps toward more robust health.

Though physical and dietary focus are important in reducing dementia risk this blog focuses on one particular line of defense: exercising our minds. In the last 20 years we’ve learned that many functions of a healthy aging brain appear to be renewable through physical exertion, good diet, and planned mental exercise. We know now that casual care of our mind may not be enough. Most of us would benefit from a brain fitness program. To get started it helps to think about our minds more like we think about our bodies. Seattle ranked 7th in the nation for fitness this year (Washington DC claimed the top spot) so Seattleites know the importance of physical exercise and are acting on that knowledge. Our brains need daily exercise and attention too. Our mind thrives on fun, challenge and new information. Just as our bodies need to move– our minds need to learn each and every day.

Brain fitness is a relatively new idea inspired and informed by advances in brain imaging and conclusions from years of research data. Much of what we once assumed about our minds has changed. We don’t lose brain cells, for instance, as we once believed and, in fact, our brains are remarkably “plastic” at every age. Check out Dr Pamela Greenwood on the Brain Science Podcast for a detailed and fascinating discussion on brain function, current research, and older minds. Mental decline is not inevitable with age. We now know that mental intelligence can remain constant over time. Our brains can be improved at any age if we develop a strategy of daily support for long lasting brain fitness.

The discovery of lifelong brain plasticity means that we have the ability to strengthen and shape our own minds physically, functionally, and chemically by learning something new or acquiring new skills. Plasticity also means that we have more control then we may realize over any mental decline. Research scientist Dr Michael Merzanich states that our modern tendencies to “remove ourselves from the details of life,” by relying on Google and electronic gadgets to remember things can speed cognitive decline. In addition, our routines and mastery of skills, which often comes with success and age, fail to sufficiently challenge our brains. So, break out of that routine, memorize your grocery list (it’s okay if you forget– that’ll help you remember next time.) and pick up a good book, a new hobby or a new language. Continual learning is a key component in every brain fitness program.

Do you recall how refreshing it was to encounter something surprising and new –like a cool breeze for the mind? Did you realize how critical that learning was as a defense against what would become an epidemic of our later years? Kickstart your focus on brain fitness by vowing to challenge and stimulate your brain. Seattle has abundant resources for learning. Do you like standard education? Try teaching or taking a class from the free or low cost schools such as Seattle Free School or the ASUW Experimental College. If you’re comfortable at home consider online learning at The Khan Academy or watching an instructional video on youtube.

Both teaching and taking a class stretches our minds. Learning doesn’t have to be studious. Learn a new recipe, repair something, take a hike, juggle, plant a garden, try yoga, invent, tour a new neighborhood, go camping, listen to new music, paint, try a new sport, or learn to play an instrument. An important aspect of brain fitness is being interested in what we’re learning. Curiosity equates with retention and enhanced brain function. Mix and match. Color outside the lines. Above all prioritize learning and design a personalized strategy for brain fitness. We can lower the incidence of memory loss in King County by lifting awareness of the importance of exercising our minds and practicing brain fitness.

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