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L.J. Rohan

L.J. Rohan

Gerontologist

FOR YOUR MIND

Cerebral Small Vessel Disease. Might You Have It?

Cerebral small vessel disease. You may know it by one of a handful of terms: white matter disease, small vessel ischemic disease, lacunar infarcts, white matter hyperintensities, or Leukoaraiosis. Cerebral small vessel disease (CSVD) encompasses a group of changes and developments (abnormalities) in the small blood vessels of the brain. Today I want to talk about the signs of cerebral small vessel disease and some promising life choices we can make to keep our brains healthy.

Recent reporting by Leslie Kernisan, MD, MPH,* and research done by Dr. Vincent Mok for the Journal of Stroke both note seeing white matter changes, (historically, and still today, called “white matter changes”) when viewing brain tissue on an MRI. Dr. Mok writes, “Lacunar infarcts (small strokes), white matter hyperintensities (these are seen during an MRI), and cerebral microbleeds [meaning bleeding in the brain from a very small blood vessel] are considered various manifestations of cerebral small vessel disease. These lesions are associated with a plethora of disabilities (e.g., stroke, cognitive impairment, depression, gait disturbances, urinary symptoms).”

cerebral small vessel disease

What Causes Cerebral Small Vessel Disease?

What causes CSVD to develop? That source of all disease: chronically high inflammation. After existing in our bodies for years, and accelerating the development of sticky plaque in our blood vessels and heart, inflammation leads to deposits of plaque, like tiny time bombs, in our brains. The damage accumulates and the small vessels in our brains become blocked – just like in a major artery. These blocks deprive our brain of nourishing blood to keep it humming in perfect tune. Blockages may allow the small vessels to leak blood into our brain tissue, resulting in a brain hemorrhage. Other conditions can also produce white matter changes, but CSVD tops the list of probable causes.

What are the Key Symptoms of CSVD?

We classify CSVD into three levels:

  1. no noticeable symptoms;
  2. moderate symptoms; or
  3. severe symptoms.

Many older adults with CVSD have no noticeable symptoms. Those we notice in folks with moderate to severe CSVD include:

  • Cognitive Impairment: When tested, those seniors with CVSD scored worse on the M-MSE, a standard exam given to test cognitive function. Vascular cognitive impairment is the term you might hear in relation to cognitive impairment and cerebral small vessel disease.
  • Walking or Balance Issues. Research shows a direct link between increased problems with overall mobility – including standing still and keeping our balance, and a disturbance in our walking and carriage when white matter lesions exist in our brains. Those of us with moderate to severe CVSD experience a noticeable downshift in our walking and balancing abilities.
  • Stroke Risk Increase. A study analyzing many studies found a 50% increase in the risk of having a stroke when white matter hyperintensities were present in the brain.
Meditation App - LJ Rohan

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Meditation Benefits Our Body and Our Brain

As we age, we lose our ability to handle stress as well as we did when we were young, and left untreated, chronic stress speeds up cognitive decline, and all the various degenerative aspects of aging. Meditation, however, can counter-balance many of the devastating effects of stress on our bodies and protect our brains from the debilitating combination of aging and unchecked stress overload. Meditation lowers cortisol levels, and as early as 1978, findings show meditators were physiologically 12 years younger that their chronological age. Now that’s good news!

Mindful meditation practices are not the cure-all for every ailment or condition, but the great news is: improvements seen in medical patients using meditation and other mind-body interventions are virtually equal to the results seen using conventional approaches in treating pain, stress, and other illnesses. This includes the use of psychotherapy, psychoactive medications, and behavior modification education.

Today, across the country, and around the world, medical schools, medical practitioners, and everyday people are using a menu of many types of meditation. These various kinds of meditation draw on different techniques originating from a variety of spiritual and non-spiritually- based traditions including: Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and the Western belief systems of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. To help the concept and practice of meditation be more understandable to us in the West, teachers of meditation have adapted many of the Eastern spiritual practices and redrafted them into a beneficial, mindfulness practice.

Strong correlations from persuasive research find changes in both the physical condition of people actively meditating, and more importantly, the lasting effects of meditating on their levels of cognitive function. In addition to significantly lowering our cortisol levels—that devil of all chemicals that causes physical and mental decline, regular meditation can help in the following ways:

  • Create a state of calmness
  • Improve our response to stress
  • Reduce our heart rate
  • Improve our memory
  • Improve our processing speed of information
  • Help concentration
  • Increase our feelings of being empowered

Truly exciting are the studies suggesting, “That meditation may decelerate, arrest, or perhaps even reverse age-related brain degeneration.” Dr. Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program, Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School reported this finding as early as 2005. My favorite dynamic girl duo, Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn and Dr. Elissa Epel, along with recent research done at UCLA with scientists at the Centre for Research on Ageing Health and Wellbeing, Australian National University, Canberra, Australia found that meditation could drastically slow down age-related brain tissue decline, significantly decreasing brain-aging. The cross-sectional studies are few, but these new results are very encouraging!

Do I meditate every day? I wish I could say yes, but the truth is, no. I do think about it every day, and do work it in most days, unless my hair is completely on fire. On the days I do take time to sit quietly, I feel so much better, I approach life in second gear instead of fifth, and I “don’t sweat the small stuff” nearly as much. I have no good answer as to why I don’t meditate every day, except to say, I’m human, and I do my best. 😉

Until next time….Be vibrant!

Meditation App - LJ Rohan

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Sleep Suggestions, Part II

Continuing our discussion from last time on good ideas for getting our much needed shut-eye, here are more sleep suggestions for you to consider:

8. Listen to a bedtime story.

Load a familiar audiobook on your iPod—one that you know well, so it doesn’t engage you but distracts your attention until you drift off to sleep, suggests Dr. Shives. Relaxing music works well, too.

9. Stay cool.

Experts usually recommend setting your bedroom thermostat between 65° and 75°F—a good guideline, but pay attention to how you actually feel under the covers; if you are still experiencing a variety of menopause sleep problems, it may need to be a bit cooler. For optimal rest, once you’ve settled in to bed, you shouldn’t feel cold or hot—but just right.

10. Use a white noise machine to drown out city noises.

Unless you are lucky enough to live in a rural area, free of urban noise.

11. Eliminate sneaky light sources.

“Light is a powerful signal to your brain to be awake,” explains Dr. Shives. “Even the glow from your laptop, iPad, smart phone, or any other electronics on your nightstand may pass through your closed eyelids and retinas into your hypothalamus—the part of your brain that controls sleep. This delays your brain’s release of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin. Thus, the darker your room is, the more soundly you’ll sleep.”

12. Check your pillow position.

Your head and spine need to be in a straight line to keep your body fully relaxed for restorative sleep. I have seen miraculous changes in people’s quality of sleep from just making this one change.

13. Contrary to popular belief:  Stay put if you wake up.

“The textbook advice is that if you can’t fall back asleep in fifteen minutes, get out of bed,” says Dr. Shives. “But I ask my patients, ‘How do you feel in bed?’ If they’re not fretting or anxious, I tell them to stay there, in the dark, and do some deep breathing or visualization.” But if lying in bed pushes your stress buttons, get up and do something quiet and relaxing (in dim light), such as gentle yoga or massaging your feet until you feel sleepy again.”

14. Spray a sleep-inducing scent.

Certain smells, such as lavender, chamomile, and ylang-ylang, activate the part of the brain which leads to relaxation and helps you sleep more soundly. Mix a few drops of essential oil and water in a spray bottle and give your pillowcase a spritz.

15. Take up yoga.

Doing yoga during the day, or adding a decompressing yoga routine before bed, slows down the body physically, and turns down the volume on noise in our heads, so we can sleep.

16. Add music to your nightly routine.

Soothing music (lovely classical or Gregorian chant) or nature sounds–I like beautiful birdsong,–are two easy ways to bring on peaceful slumber. Try listening to the music and doing some slow, deep belly breathing to help downshift everything from head to toe.

And last, but not least…

Keeping life interesting and mentally stimulating also promotes good sleep and slows telomere aging, as Chiara Cirelli, MD, PhD from the Department of Psychiatry, University of Wisconsin-Madison noted in her research.

Dr. Cirelli said “[Our] need for sleep is strongly modulated by the amount of brain plasticity during our day. The more we learn and adapt the more we need to sleep. A chronic decrease in sleep need could be due to reduced opportunity to learn and be exposed to novel experience, rather than, or in addition to, problems in the neural circuits responsible for sleep regulation.”

I know there are even more ways to call on the sandman, and I welcome any and all useful sleep suggestions!

Until next time…Be Vibrant!

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Good Sleep Suggestions Part I

So how can women over 55 get the healing slow wave activity and REM sleep they need to take over the world?—I mean optimally function in the world?

Separating the cow patties from the gems on the internet, the solid gold research points to a number of practices we can adopt to get the REM age-defying sleep after menopause we need. O.K., I added “youthening” to the list, because sleep slows the signs of aging, as I discussed in my September 2, 2019 post, and clears out the gunk from our aging brain, while it reverses telomeres aging—all of which keep us younger than our drivers’ licenses claim we are. Let’s start with the a few easy choices we can make to improve our sleep, and then add a few others that require a little more time to implement.

Dr. Breus clinical psychologist and author of The Sleep Doctor’s Diet Plan: Lose Weight Through Better Sleep says, “If you do only one thing to improve your sleep, this is it: Set a sleep schedule—and stick with it.” Going to bed at the same time every night and getting up at the same time every morning—even on weekends, presently shows incredible promise as a magic formula for getting good sleep. A consistent sleep routine keeps our biological clocks finely calibrated so we rest better, plus exposure to a regular pattern of light and dark helps, too.  Opening the blinds or going outside right after awakening can help us stay in sync and keep our clocks humming.

Here are some additional things you might try:

 1. Keep a sleep diary

Dr. Lisa Shives of the National Sleep Foundations suggests: “To help you understand how your habits affect your rest, track your sleep every day for at least 2 weeks. Write down not only what’s obviously sleep related—what time you go to bed, how long it takes you to fall asleep, how many times you wake up during the night, how you feel in the morning—but also factors like what you ate close to bedtime and what exercise you got. Comparing your daily activities with your nightly sleep patterns can show you where you need to make changes.”

2. Review your medications

Beta-blockers (prescribed for high blood pressure) may cause insomnia; so can SSRIs (a class of antidepressants that includes Prozac and Zoloft); these are only the tip of the mountain of drugs that cause us to lose sleep. Write down every drug and supplement you take (as they could interact), and have your supplements expert evaluate how they may be affecting your sleep.

3. Cut caffeine after 2 pm

That means coffee, tea, and cola—all caffeine, even chocolate, if you’re sensitive.

4. Write down your woes

“The number one sleep complaint I hear? ‘I can’t turn off my mind,’ ” says Dr. Breus. To quiet our anxious mind, every night jot down your top concerns—then write down the steps you can take to solve the problem. Once concerns are converted into some kind of action plan, you’ll “put your mind at rest,” as the cliché goes.

5. Take time to wind down

“Sleep is not an on-off switch,” says Dr. Breus. “It’s more like slowly easing your foot off the gas.” Give your body time to transition from your active day.

 Dr. Shives suggests:

  • First 20 minutes: Prep for tomorrow (pack your bag, set out your clothes).
  • Next 20: Take care of personal hygiene–take a warm bath (my personal go-to for transitioning), brush your teeth, moisturize your face, and brush your hair to relax your scalp, brush slowly and turn upside down, too; this calms your mind, as well.
  • Last 20: Relax in bed, reading with a small, low-wattage book light or practicing deep breathing.

6. Don’t drink alcohol at least 2 hours before bed

A few hours after drinking, alcohol levels in your blood start to drop, which signal your body to wake up. It takes an average person about an hour to metabolize one drink, so if you have two glasses of wine with dinner, finish your last sip at least 2 hours before bed.

7. Snack on cheese and apple slices

The ideal nighttime treat combines carbohydrates and either calcium (unless dairy sensitive) or a protein that contains the amino acid tryptophan—studies show that both of these combos boost serotonin. Finish up your snack about an hour before bed so that the amino acids have time to reach your brain.

In my next post I will add a few more suggestions to the list to help you get your ZZZ’s.

Until next time…Be Vibrant!

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Sleep and Women: At Midlife and Beyond

The National Sleep Foundation Senior Health website recommends for adults 65 and older, 7-8 hours of sleep per night for better cognition, mental, and physical health. Seniors, especially women, suffer from sleep deprivation due to trouble falling asleep. Additionally, women often sleep less deeply, and have less slow brain wave activity (REM)—that body-restoring and rebuilding phase of sleep. We also wake up more often throughout the night, creating daytime tiredness and the perchance for napping. Sleep issues affect as many as 25% of senior women.

The Nurses’ Health Studies, among the largest studies into the risk factors for major chronic diseases in women was begun in 1976, and is ongoing. The studies have compiled data on more than a quarter of a million women. Using the benchmark of seven hours of sleep per night, the NHS found: Shorter and longer sleepers were less physical active, and had higher body mass indices. Less than five-hour sleepers scored significantly lower on cognitive tests. The shortest sleepers experienced the worst cognitive decline later in life. Just two hours a night less over time was enough to accelerate this decline.

Overlaying directly with the NHS, Daniel Polesel PhD., at Federale Universidad de Sao Paulo found Obstructive Sleep Apnea Syndrome (OSAS) is prevalent in postmenopausal women, especially in “late postmenopause,” noting OSAS in women increases significantly after menopause. For moderate and severe OSAS, the researchers found our waist circumference in both early and late postmenopause to be the main factors for sleep apnea. Dr. Polesel noted that late postmenopause may potentially exacerbate the presence of sleep disturbances and that reducing our waist measurement may be an important way to help manage OSAS.

A huge study—2,789 women, reported the addition of bedwetting (nocturnal enuresis-NE) along with OSAS. The symptoms associated with NE include: obesity, snoring, poor sleep quality, sleep fragmentation, daytime sleepiness, and hypertension. Each additional OSAS risk factor significantly increased the odds of having NE in comparison with women with no risk factors. What is the cause behind this sensitive, underdiagnosed issue? We experience apnea-associated changes in the air pressure in our lungs which leads to increased urine output. To further mess with our shut-eye, NE may be a surrogate condition for nocturia, a condition causing us to wake up during the night because we have to urinate. As we get older, many of us urinate more frequently, especially at night. In general, women, and men, over 60 do not usually urinate more than twice a night. “Patients with severe nocturia may get up five or six times to go to the bathroom,” said, Dr. Robert S. Rosenberg, a pulmonologist and medical director of the Sleep Disorders Center of Prescott Valley and Flagstaff, Arizona. “Sleep apnea triggers the frequent urination.” If you wake up to pee more than twice, give your doctor a call.

 Another cause of disruptive, fragmented, less restorative sleep? Post-menopausal hormone levels. It’s often called hormonal insomnia or progesterone insomnia. At all stages of a woman’s life, the hormone progesterone affects brain function. When in balance, it produces a sense of calmness, and its sedating and anti-anxiety qualities help promote rejuvenating sleep. Progesterone and sleep are tightly connected as our brains are highly sensitive to progesterone. As we know, our progesterone levels drop drastically after menopause.

All of us on the other side of fifty-five, know the multitude of ways menopause affects sleep. Bio-identical hormone replacement therapy is one option to tame those symptoms, if started within one year of entering post-menopause. This therapy received bad press fifteen years ago, and, many of us threw our hormones in the trash, stomped on them for good measure, and then incinerated them. However, once cooler heads prevailed, and the smoke had cleared from all those fires, subsequent research drilled into the flawed Women’s Health Initiative Study and proved bio-identical hormones–those biologically identical to the hormones our bodies produce, are a safe and effective way to even out hormone depletion and keep a woman’s body firing on all cylinders. Whew.

Another hormone, dehydroepiandrosterone, or DHEA, also helps maintain normal sleep patterns. DHEA peaks when we are young and carefree, and then begins to decline.  By the time we reach seventy, our DHEA levels may be less than one-fifth of what we had at age twenty.

Our thyroid glands also have an impact on every system in our body. Thyroid levels affect our energy levels, mental focus and functions, sleep cycles, and more. About 25% of women develop thyroid problems by the time they reach their early forties.

To add another bug in the bathwater, stress and high cortisol levels wrecks sleep. At night, just as we need to wind down, cortisol levels rise. We then feel more alert and awake at bedtime, making sleeping impossible. This cycle of exhaustion repeats itself, never allowing us to get the restorative sleep that would help bring our levels back to normal. Also, a lack of sleep raises our cortisol levels even more. Cortisol is made in the adrenal cortex from progesterone. The small amount of progesterone being produced (and that is a micro-dot amount compared to our pre-menopause days) creates cortisol, which allows little or no progesterone to come to our sleep aid.

But, there is hope on the horizon, and in the coming weeks I will share some proven ways to sail off to the land on Nod.

Until next time…Be Vibrant!


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The Skinny on Sleep

“Taken together, the results of studies looking at the role of sleep in hormonal, immunological and memory functions suggest that if you do not get enough sleep, you could—besides being very tired—wind up sick, overweight, forgetful and very blue,” says Dr. Robert Stickgold, PhD., at the Harvard Medical School and a sleep researcher focusing on the relationship between sleep and learning.

We now know, sleep doesn’t just have a one purpose. Instead, it appears to be needed for a many of our biological processes to work at their best and slow our biological aging—from our immune system, to hormonal balance, our emotional and psychiatric health, our learning and memory, to the clearance of toxins from the brain. At the same time, none of these functions fails completely in the absence of sleep, but years of sleep deprivation will make many of these short-circuit and ruin our health. 

Just one night of complete, or even partial, sleep loss can interfere with all kinds of bodily functions, such as hormonal activity and our immune protection against infections. Reduced sleep seems to lead to increased weight gain—a theory now supported by at least fifty studies; studies which point to a fifty percent increase in obesity among those studied getting fewer than six hours of sleep. Research also shows an association between sleep restriction and the development of type 2 diabetes.

Adding to the huge effects restricted sleep has on immune and hormonal function, its greatest impact probably occurs in the brain. It seems that when we are sleep deprived, our brain remembers negative words and experiences twice as much as positive words and experiences. Just another reason to get our zzz’s so that we can see the glass as always at least half-full.

“Indeed, several studies over the past 25 years have now concluded that poor sleep can, under certain circumstances, lead to depression severe enough to be diagnosed as major depression and may contribute to other psychiatric disorders as well.” The link with depression has become clearer and seems to directly connect to sleep apnea, a disorder in which the flow of air into the lungs becomes interrupted during sleep. A 2012 study by the CDC found that folks with sleep apnea—men twice as often, and women 5.2 times more often, are likely to experience  major depression than their better-rested neighbors. “Of course, finding a correlation between these two conditions is not the same thing as proving that one causes the other,” Stickgold says.

Presently, researchers suspect that the sleep helps the brain transform our waking experiences into memories. A bushel basket of new science published in the last twenty years reveals that sleep participates in memory processing—it controls what we remember, and how we remember it. Something I found very cool is the research showing that memories can change, or be lost altogether, even after the brain records and consolidates them. One recent study finds that sleep does more than just stabilize memories and keep them from deteriorating over time; it actually improves them!

What Stickgold and others now firmly believe: during different stages of sleep and emotional memories are more favorably enhanced during sleep. Science shows us anything we think is important is selectively retained while we float along in dreamland. The bottom line? Sleep, and not wake time, selectively strengthens memories that our brain decides has value to us.

Dr. Daniel Schacter of Harvard University believes our memory is about the future, not the past; we use prior experience to enhance our future performance.  When we talk about sleeping on a problem, we want our brain to take the information that is already stored there and do some kind of calculation, to juxtapose different possibilities, to find the best solution to a problem. Lucky for us, it can!

If all the above information doesn’t convince you to make sleep a priority, research now adds to the list that sleep clears waste products from the brain. When the investigators injected beta-amyloid (the precursor of the amyloid plaques—the cause of Alzheimer’s disease) into mice, they found that it was cleared from the brain during sleep at twice the rate as during awake times.

I’ll bet you had no idea how important getting adequate sleep each night truly is for every facet of our health and our aging process. I sure didn’t before I became a gerontologist, but now, don’t get between me and my eight and a half hours. (Yes, I need extra!) Sleep is a not yet fully understood phenomenon that all living creatures share here on Planet Earth, and sleep may help us sleep deeply, experience healthy aging, and feel vibrant every day.

Until next time…Be Vibrant!

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It’s Never Too Late to Help Our Aging Brain!

Did you know, when we take our first breath, there exists no difference in the length of our telomeres between those newborns sporting blue booties and those stylin’ with pink ones? Quick science lesson recap: Telomeres are the protective end caps of our chromosomes—think the plastic protective tip of your shoelace. Telomeres are found in every cell throughout our bodies. The longer and stronger our telomeres are, the higher functioning our brains and minds will be, and the less our bodies will decline and age.  However, once we are all grown up, telomeres are longer in women than in men. (Sorry, fellows.)

The medical world now knows the hormone estrogen creates this disparity between the sexes. Research also reveals estrogen may regulate the number of telomeres we have, as well.  Before menopause, the estrogen we produce protects women’s telomeres from shortening and keeps our telomeres strong and growing.

Interestingly, we postmenopausal women with a history of long-term hormone therapy (HRT) use show longer telomere length than do those who didn’t use hormone replacements after menopause. It seems the extra years of estrogen in our systems kept our telomeres long and strong. That information led me to ask: “For the millions of women who did use HRT, and have finished the recommended protocol of time, what do we do now?”

Drilling into the science, the answer occupying the number one position is exercise. If you have followed my posts for a while, you will be slowly nodding your head, as I have written this word once or twice before about exercise and aging ;-0

Exercise slows down the effects of aging

What I haven’t really focused on before is how much exercise benefits postmenopausal women as a way to slow aging. Since we lose our armor of hormone protection at menopause, because our ovaries produce most of our estrogen, we are left with our fat cells and adrenals as the only sources for this precious substance. Stress causes the adrenals to switch from making estrogen (even a smidge) to adrenalin and the enemy of all people, cortisol. This makes our chances of getting even a drop of this elixir needed for keeping our brain memory functioning at peak level, well, pretty much zero.  

However, there’s good news! For the millions of women who did, and the millions who didn’t opt in for HRT, there is great hope! You may also remember when I wrote about the breakthroughs scientists had made a couple of decades ago in understanding the brain. We now know the brain grows and changes throughout our lives until we take that last breath. We call that development neuroplasticity. That means we are only in the third quarter of the game after we finish HRT, and can still bring home a win in the final one. It is looking as if exercise expands and strengthens our telomeres. More research is needed, but my favorite girl gang, those Nobel Prize winner dynamic dames, Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn and Dr. Elissa Epel, the experts in telomeres and aging, would take the bet that exercise looks like the magic bullet.  Even better news? Midlife men also seem to benefit from exercise, telomere-wise!

A ground-breaking study from South Korea and published in the highly respected Menopause: The Journal of the North American Menopause Society states:

“Compared with a sedentary lifestyle, long-term aerobic exercise and increasing levels of physical activity are associated with reduced telomere attrition [shortening]. This cross-sectional study demonstrated that postmenopausal women who perform habitual physical exercise have significantly longer telomere lengths than do those with sedentary lifestyles.” Straight from the horse’s, researchers, mouth, so to speak.

Compiling this information on how to slow down aging inspires me to put on my tennies this very minute and take a brisk stroll. Come join me!

Until next time….Be Vibrant!

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Tapping Into a Better Brain

A number of years ago, before I went back to school to study gerontology, I began noticing articles in a variety of publications suggesting that exercise might just be the key to unlock the door to vibrant health—mentally and physically– as we enter the second half of our lives. As I write this, we now know beyond all doubt that exercising every day is the key to dynamic aging. It will effectively disrupt aging and can stave off a vat full of health problems. In two past posts, Shake Your Booty and The Rhythm of the Drums, I explored the latest research citing dancing as one of the outstanding ways to lay down new tracks in our aging brain and grow new brain cells along with sleeker muscles.

If you ever participated in your high school’s annual musical production, or took modern dance or ballet because your mother forced you to, you will remember those students who never got the steps, and who had the grace of a spastic earwig. I confess to being one of those students. Therefore it was with no expectations, and little hope, that I signed up for tap class. The first semester wasn’t pretty, I couldn’t cotton on to this kind of dance; so different from the free-form rock and roll dancing I knew. I would sit in my car after class and cry, disheartened that the parade of life had passed me by and that, maybe, I was too old to get this.  Same experience for the second and third semesters, but by the beginning of the fourth, I noticed a small but encouraging change: I could remember how to execute some of the steps after a few tries, and some days both feet would behave for most of the class. Finally, I could keep up with the routine. My teacher, Vicky, a life-long dancer near my own age, who is demanding but very kind, never gave up on me. My fellow tappers were also free of judgement and full of encouragement. The continuously positive environment was the reason I stayed, unlike years before when a ballet teacher shamed me in front of the class for being such a hopeless beginner.  

Shuffle-ball-change by double-toe-tap, I improved. Some weeks it all flows, and other weeks I just give up and make up my own steps while the others tap out a perfect routine. Over time I learned to joke and laugh at my mistakes, and everyone laughed with me. I gave up trying to be perfect, and let the over-achieving aspect of L.J. take a break on the bench.

As our time together as a class has increased, everyone has lightened up, we laugh more, and have a lot of fun. Some days we follow class with lunch together. I look forward to my class each week, and miss it when summer comes. About the same time I could follow along fairly well, I noticed my mind felt clearer, a little sharper. Now, even when I am tired I think better, and my thoughts seem more organized. From my research I know the tracks I began laying in my brain two years ago have gone from resembling noodles, to ones stronger than cardboard, to pathways now as strong as wood. That’s only one step away from making permanent steel tracks. Maybe then I can get the routine down on the second or third try. At this moment, I am so grateful I didn’t give up, that I found a new form of exercise I enjoy.  

And, I expanded my world with new friends who share my passion for aging vibrantly.

 Until next time…Be Vibrant!

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Set in our Ways

I recently had lunch with a dear friend who is in his mid-eighties. In our many years of friendship we have covered a huge variety of topics from politics to the latest James Bond movie to the best kind of pajamas (cotton, with dog print, of course.) A couple of years ago, I noticed a shift in his thought process and responses.

He is still as sharp as a Swiss Army knife, however, when we hit on a topic and I offer a counter perspective, in the past he would nod, contemplate my words and offer a considered response. Lately, he has gone from doing that to simply dismissing my opinion as irrelevant. The pitch of his dismissal has also escalated. He has developed a habit, which I see is a variation of the Socio-emotional Selectivity Theory in action: Selective Exposure Theory.

This can happen at any age, but it is a behavior often adopted by the elderly. This behavior is happening in the US in greater numbers and is becoming a growing concern for the seniors’ friends and family. More and more these seniors refuse to hear anything that defies their set beliefs, or their worldviews. Does it really matter if we get set in our ways? It matters because it is a sign that these people no longer want to be fully engaged in the world, learn new things, or think deeply about important life/cultural issues specific to their areas of interest or expertise, as in the case of my friend who is a literary scholar.

This decision, whether conscious or unconscious, halts the intake of new information, a critical part of keeping our brains engaged, active, and challenged; all key components in opposing the development of dementia and Alzheimer’s. We become what my sweet grandmother used to call, “set in our ways.”

I have said many times before, (and will again!) our bodies are “use it or lose it” cellular machines, and that is equally true for our brains, our emotional hearts, and our physical bodies. I call this behavior Locking In, and once we start to lock in, our brains in all areas, begin to atrophy. The first to falter are our memory functions followed by our higher reasoning skills. From there we start to favor re-runs of I Love Lucy and twenty-four-piece puzzles. Maybe not right away, but the die is cast.

Now for some good news! You, or a loved one can avoid the above scenario by making different choices. Remember, if you don’t like the way your life is going, you have the power to re-choose.

Here are a few ideas to engage your mind if you begin to feel the Selective Exposure Theory surfacing in your psyche or see it creeping into a loved one’s:

  1. Go to a lecture/discussion group on a topic you are only mildly interested in, listen to the comments, and keep an open mind;
  2. Even better, learn about something completely new that you have no prior knowledge of;
  3. Listen to music other than what you prefer, and try to appreciate its value;
  4. Take a break from your usual reading preference and try something different. If you like mysteries or romances, check out some historical non-fiction, true crime, or sci-fi. Then, find a friend who loves that genre and share opinions;
  5. Sign up to volunteer in a field you know nothing about. (For me that would be childcare ;-))

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. The goal is to challenge your brain, force yourself to think and learn about new things – to no longer be set in our ways. Before too long, I wouldn’t be surprised if your memory is better, and you look five years younger!

Until next time…Be Vibrant!

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Are You Out of Balance?

Until I pass on into the next world, I want to be independent and mobile; if I can prevent it, no wheelchairs or rocking chairs for me. I’m sure you feel the same, right? I have covered many aspects of aging which will help us stay out of those kind of chairs, and maintain our ability to get out of our favorite chair.

Today, we will look at one more: Keeping and improving our balance. So if you are in your fifties reading this, you might thing, “well, that’s not something I need to worry about now,” but, au contraire, the research shows balance begins to slow down in our fifties and continues declining unless we stop and reverse this tendency.

balance
The Adventures of LJ & GE

First, let’s breakdown all the elements contributing to our ability to get out of a chair with ease and walk down the sidewalk in high heels without ending up in the street, embarrassed and bloody.

Balance is actually a complex whole-body exercise.

Your science lesson for the day: balance requires your sensory systems, your brain, and your muscles and joints to work together. Our sensory system is made up of our eyes, ears and sense of touch. Our eyes tell us where we are in relation to other objects, and if these objects are still or moving; our inner ear has tiny hairs and tiny nerves which work together to tell our brains the position of our head, and like the rudder of a boat or airplane, the hairs and nerves are constantly trying to right the ship and keep it in perfect alignment to the earth, standing still or in motion.

Additionally, small crystals of calcium inside our ears help us sense the pull of the earth-gravity, and recognize movement. No small tasks for such fine hairs! Our feet and joints let us know if we are on even ground or moving across rough terrain, and our brain takes all this in and sends messages to our cerebral cortex. We then understand all this input as “Watch out, it’s dark and the path is angled and covered with loose rocks!”  

The worst part of taking a fall when we are over sixty comes more from the psychological toll than the physical one: the fear of falling. Suddenly, we might start limiting what we do—traveling, going out to unfamiliar places, resisting new experiences, all because we might fall. That wheelchair or rocking chair now starts looking positively inviting. STOP HERE! Do not past GO and collect your $200 to use on one of these. There is good news, and it is this: falling is NOT a normal part of aging.

You have the power and the ability to keep your balance until the day the angels take you away, but you must, like all things, work on it to keep. Thankfully relief from the fear is as close as your YMCA/YWCA, gym, or rec center. Tai Chi, the ancient Chinese practice of slow, meditative movements done in a particular sequence ranks as one of the most effective practices to enhance or restore balance. It also works great on lowering your stress and cortisol so you will live longer to dance with your favorite partner. Additionally, yoga is an outstanding practice for shoring up balance, there is even a one-footed balancing pose to get right to it! 

Outside of organized classes there are some very effective daily practices we can incorporate to help us be fall-free:

  • Try heel-to-toe walking as if you were on a balance beam like an Olympic gymnast
  • Sit on an exercise ball to strengthen your core and practice getting up without holding on to anything or toppling over
  • Exercise on a wobble board or Boscu ™ ball (one of those half balls nailed to a flat board
  • Practice standing on one foot while you brush your teeth—left in the morning, right one at night.

All of the above should be done once your doctor has given you the go-ahead and ruled out any serious inner ear disorders, Parkinson’s, diabetes and/or certain medications which might affect balance.

Keeping our balance throughout our lives is such an empowering, and doable thing one wonders why we don’t all work on it every day. What might be stopping you? 

Until next time…..Be Vibrant!

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Dancing May Be the Best Aerobic Exercise to Reduce Dementia

Now we know that four types of aerobic exercise are what we’re aiming for to maximize our telomeres, but there is more to think about to boosting your brain power than just our telomeres. There’s also the matter of retaining our motor skills, shoring up our balance and increasing a different type of memory. 

Research shows that dancing is a promising candidate for countering the age-related decline in our physical and mental abilities; dancing to improve your memory is now showing up in several studies. Aerobic exercise helps in both these areas, but the positive effects of dancing will make you want to sign up for that tap class!

We know the hippocampus plays a vital part in our major cognitive processes—memory and learning, but what you may not know is it is also involved with helping us maintain our balance, something crucial for our well-being and quality of life at any age. While aerobic exercise does its magic growing and maintaining our telomeres in our hippocampus– reversing hippocampus damage overall, as well as all the organs and cells of our bodies, it falls off the list when it comes to helping us stay steady on our feet and feeling grounded. Adding a dance class to our weekly regime can tip our balance from tottering and falling off our stilettos to confidently working the room on them. 

Even more reason to put on your dancing shoes is what dancing does to the long-term health of our brain. Science lesson for today:  two significant studies, one involving more than four hundred and seventy older adults found that dancing created significant (by research standards) cognitive changes in the participants when compared to traditional repetitive exercise—biking, walking, swimming. 

After just six months of regular dance classes, verses regular aerobic exercise, the parahippocampal gyrus (the tissue of the brain that surrounds the hippocampus) of the dancers was bigger. Research also shows skipping the workouts of the parahippocampal regions creates an early red flag on the track towards Alzheimer’s (you can forget that term, now.)  This part of the hippocampus is directly involved with, among other things, storing our memories of last weekend’s great dinner with friends and the important passwords needed to unlock the computers at work.  It’s necessary to process those correctly so that they get filed in the right file—the lasagna recipe goes into the Splurge file; your seven-digit, with at least one capital letter and two even numbers goes into the “Notes” app on your phone. We need to keep it all straight so that later, we can correctly recall everything. 

The dancers also showed significant improvements in manual dexterity, spatial memory-remembering where things are in relation to yourself, tactile discrimination-the sensitivity of our fingertips and our ability to tell the difference between textures, different surfaces, and the like. But, best of all their motor skills were much better than the traditional exercise group. For even more good news: following up for 5.1 years afterward, the dancers showed a markedly reduced risk of developing dementia. How great is that for swinging to the beat once a week? 

In looking at the details of the dance program, we find what makes this form of fun so beneficial: the dance program required the participants to constantly learn new dance patterns. These folks weren’t just doing the watusi every week. And here in lies the key mental health benefits of dancing– making the brain work hard each week to learn those new steps creates the change and growth of our brain, and muscles. The onslaught of unique information each week challenged the minds of these seniors and forced their brains to lay down new nerve tracks and make new nerve connections. The time period of 18 months seems to be an important factor for making these new pathways permanent. More study is needed, but many signs point toward this length of time. 

Knowing this, and since getting my husband to take dancing lessons just didn’t work out in his schedule, I took up tap dancing. I am very, very bad at it, having never done it before, but I can say it has helped my memory. My thoughts come just a little easier, and I can more quickly recall things.  Even my balance has improved a good leap! 

Additionally, there is another component contributing to the sustained increase in the cortex volume of our senior dancers: the winning combination of music and movement. Stay tuned!

Until next time…Dance Vibrantly! 

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How Stress Negatively Impacts Your Memory

Have you had any luck with single-tasking this week? Even driving without talking, or texting, is a step forward. Keep at it. The rewards are vast from just being present and doing one thing at a time, the great masters called this mindfulness, and it is something to strive for. Today, I want to delve in a bit more to the effects of cortisol on our brains, and how stress and memory loss are intimately connected.  

I am guessing that many of us thought by the time we were eligible for AARP, as older people were portrayed in movies and television when we were growing up, we would be slowing down and heading for time in the RV to See America First. Somehow, life didn’t quite turn out that way, and I for one, am busier than ever, partly because of our 24/7-always-connected world. This busyness causes stress on our bodies, and raises our cortisol levels at a time when biologically our bodies have down-shifted from firing on all cylinders, all the time, as when we were 25.

Chronic stress– caring for a loved one, a long-term negative work situation, divorce, grieving the death of a spouse/partner/child, financial pressures or health problems, causes our cortisol levels to rise and stay elevated. The result is a cascade of effects that puts our immune system, all our hormonal systems (which help regulate every organ and function in our body), and our neurological system (system of nerves) from head to toe at risk of going haywire. In future blogs I will talk more about the effects of stress on the body. Here, I want to touch on what happens to our ability to retrieve data, store data, reasoning, learning something new—the entire scope of processing  information we are required to do a million times every day. 

Extensive research reveals the direct link between memory and stress and cortisol levels. Consistently high levels of cortisol impairs all these functions—we can’t remember things we once knew we knew, we are unable to hold new information in our minds, and our ability to think and navigate successfully in the world is diminished. This bundle of brain functions are called “working memory.” I think of what cortisol’s short-circuiting does to our working memory like a piano with missing keys; when I play Moonlight Serenade, the missing notes makes Glenn Miller’s classic sound odd. Cortisol has the ability to make our memory act odd. I recall during a particularly stressful period a few years ago, I could not pull up words I wanted to use. My memory would literally go blank, nothing would come– my circuitry was shut down, everyone gone home for the night. It was scary. After the period passed, my word retrieval, along with my ability to remember why I went into a room, returned. I was grateful.

As I mentioned last week, over time and as we get older, chronic stress causes our brains to change shape, and sections—most notably the front part of our brains, will actually shrink, forever ending our ability to have optimal brain or memory function. Sadly, MRI’s show this to be true. When I started my studies to become a gerontologist, I learned in-depth how seriously stress messes with our minds, and as we enter middle age our bodies don’t have the same reserves to preserve brain function. 

Right now, this red-hot minute, lowering our stress level should become our #1 priority, because, the good news is: when we do, our bodies and our memory can recover and heal. Starting next week I am going to begin talking about ways to do just that, not only to stop the decline, but boost our health and memory and turn our backs on memory-robbing dementia.

Until next time…Be Vibrant!

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The Role of Telomeres in Slowing Down Our Aging Clock and How to Increase Them

Stress increases levels of cortisol, which at high levels is toxic to the brain—in particular to the memory-consolidating hippocampus which is one of the first structures to be assaulted by Alzheimer’s disease.

The End of Alzheimer’s, Dale E. Bredesen, MD.

Today’s brief science lesson: The hippocampus is located deep inside our brains. It is the part of our brains responsible for, among other things, our short-term and long-term memory storage. As I discussed last time, stress kills cells, all different kinds of cells throughout our body, and a key component of those cells is their telomeres.

The Role of Telomeres

Telomeres are the protective end caps of our chromosomes—think the plastic tip of a shoelace. Telomeres are found in every cell throughout the body. The longer and stronger our telomeres are, the higher functioning our brains and minds will be, and the less our body will decline and age. The telomeres in our hippocampus cells are involved with memory. Shortened telomeres are found in people with dementia and Alzheimer’s.  I know this is a lot of information to take in, but I want to set the stage for future discussions about exciting new research which can help us slow down aging and the destruction of these two very important aspects of our physical selves.

In a previous post I talked about how stress and cortisol can shrink our brains and damage our memories forever. Now for the really, really great news: there are several ways to not only stop this happening, but reverse it and improve our brains, our memory functions, and our entire bodies. One of the most important is….exercise. 

Exercise has emerged in the last few years as so much more important that we previously thought. The smart folks are saying that every neurologist should be prescribing exercise to their patients before they write a script for anything else. We are animals that were born to move—use it or lose it, the saying goes, and that is proving so very true. I will come back again and again to the smorgasbord of benefits of various types of exercise. The list is long, and getting longer.

One key finding is that exercise slows down aging of the body.  For our hippocampus and its attending telomeres, aerobic exercise is the answer; vigorous aerobic exercise at 60% of our maximum capacity—the level at which we are breathing somewhat hard, but can still hold a conversation. Your personal 60% will depend on your fitness level, and as you become more fit, it will shift up. Forty-five minutes, at least three times per week, and our telomeres will be healthy– in our brains and throughout our bodies.

And, here is the even better news: High-intensity interval training (HIIT) stimulates the birth of brand new hippocampus cells. When we rev up the intensity of our workout to our maximum capacity at regular intervals for 20, 30, or 40 seconds, followed by a periods of recovery, our hippocampus receives a message which forces it to adapt and grow to accommodate the onslaught of energy. Our ability to remember improves, our cognitive functions improve, and our lives improve. The response in our muscles and our brains causes a short-term stress response and from this, new cells are created; a positive association between the role of telomeres and stress. (An example of when some stress is good for us!) HIIT training is not something to enter into lightly. As older adults, we must gradually build up our capability, even if we have been exercising regularly. The safest way to add HIT into your workout is to talk with a fitness professional—at your gym or the Y. The trained staff there can help you put together a sensible plan. But—MAKE SURE you speak with a trainer who is trained to work with older adults!!! Ask the necessary questions to find the trainer who understands your needs.

Over the last two weeks watching the finest athletes compete at Winter Olympics will, I hope, inspire you to get moving, it did me, and those amazing women and men reminded me to get in my aerobic work! The myriad of other gifts from doing regular aerobic and HIIT exercise will keep for another day, but know that by lacing those tennis shoes onto your feet and doing the work, you have the capacity to drastically slowdown your aging. Now, just go do it.

Until next time…Be Vibrant!

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Do I Really Need to Buy Organic Food? Yes and No. Here’s Why.

Fact: Every year in the United States, one billion pounds of pesticides are sprayed on our foods. So, where do all those pesticides go, and are they harmful to us?  

When pesticides are sprayed, the growing plant, tree, shrub, or bush absorbs these chemicals, which alters the natural state of the plant. Some of the spray lands on the soil, and sinks into the earth, filling the soil with pesticides that eventually make it all the way to the ground water. Additionally, some of the spray hits the surface of our water supplies, the same supply that irrigates the plants we eat, which have already received a dose of pesticides. Then it permeates the water we drink, cook with, and use to bathe our children. The USDA suspects that 50 million Americans obtain their drinking water from ground water that may be contaminated with pesticides and other chemicals.   

The USDA and the FDA continually reassure us that chronic low-level exposure to pesticides and other agricultural chemicals is safe. However, many of the commonly used chemicals in pesticides have long been classified as possible or probable carcinogens and endocrine disruptors. For us at mid-life, the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s increases the more frequently we are exposed to or ingest pesticides. In the last decade, the results of several large-scale studies have been published focusing on just this connection. More than three thousand people participated in a multi-year study published in the journal Neurology. The researchers found farmers and gardeners were twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s as the general population. Men seem to be at higher risk than women, possibly because there are more men in farming jobs than women. 

There are also an increasing number of studies linking exposure to pesticides to cognitive dysfunction and even overt dementia, including AD dementia, and Parkinson’s disease. Some of the latest research finds that some individuals, due to their genetic composition, may be more vulnerable to the toxic effects of pesticides compared to other individuals with different genetic backgrounds. 

organic food

I am very concerned with the amount of chemicals sprayed on our foods. Fortunately, there is a way to reduce our exposure to the harmful effects of pesticides. Organically grown foods contain fewer pesticide residues in comparison to conventionally grown foods. Organic foods are readily available these days and, in my opinion, organically grown foods taste better.  

Sometimes, however, the cost of organic foods can dissuade people from buying them, but you can buy organic food on a budget, most often at farmer’s markets and sometimes in the frozen food section.  If you have a choice between buying organic or conventional foods, wouldn’t you like to know which ones are the most affected by pesticides?  Then you can choose to buy organic or not, based on that information. 

Each year The Environmental Working Group, a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to protecting human health and the environment analyzes data from the federal Department of Agriculture. They evaluate pesticide use and create two lists: the Dirty Dozen list, which contains the highest number and concentration of pesticide residue foods, and a Clean Fifteen list, which contains the lowest number and concentration of pesticide residue foods. 

Here are the lists for 2018: 

Dirty Dozen Foods 2018: 

  1. Strawberries 
  2. Spinach 
  3. Nectarines
  4. Apples 
  5. Grapes 
  6. Peaches 
  7. Cherries 
  8. Pears 
  9. Tomatoes 
  10. Celery 
  11. Potatoes 
  12. Sweet Bell Peppers 

Clean Fifteen Foods 2018: 

  1. Avocados
  2. Sweet Corn 
  3. Pineapples 
  4. Cabbages 
  5. Onions 
  6. Sweet Peas frozen
  7. Papayas 
  8. Asparagus 
  9. Mangoes 
  10. Eggplants 
  11. Honeydew melons
  12. Kiwis 
  13. Cantaloupes 
  14. Cauliflower 
  15. Broccoli 

One tip to help with the higher cost of organics is to buy only those in season, or buy organic frozen. These are picked at the height of the best flavor season for that fruit or vegetable, and then quickly frozen to lock in as much flavor as possible. 

Organic vs. non-organic has been, and will be for some time to come, a fiercely debated topic.  A friend recently told me she will only buy conventionally grown strawberries because they taste so much better, and she doesn’t care about the pesticides. I can’t agree, but all people are entitled to their opinions. And so the debate continues… 

Until next time…. Be Vibrant!  

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12 Best Brain Foods for Memory, Concentration, and Brain Health

To sum up my discussion on brain health, the aging brain, and the gut brain connection, I am listing below the best things to “feed” your brain to help it, and you, function at your most vibrant. Based on the latest research, I am listing these brain foods in rough order of importance.

The Best Brain Foods in Order of Importance

  1. Cut back or eliminate eating refined sugar—white or brown sugar and maple syrup. 
  2. Cut back or eliminate processed foods made from wheat—cookies, crackers, breads, breakfast cereal. (By a country mile, these two are the most important choices you can make for the health of your brain.)
  3. Eat a like an Italian, or Greek, or other culture from the Mediterranean region. (See my 1/28/2019 post at LJRohan.com for more discussion about this tasty way of eating).
  4. Reduce your stress level: put more fun in your life.  Add quiet time or meditation into your day. Seriously consider adopting  a pet.
  5. Exercise moderately every day. Do enough to raise your heart rate to at least the lower end of the target range for your age: (https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/measuring/heartrate.htm. The formula there is 220-your age.)
  6. Develop a daily gratitude practice by looking for and acknowledging things going right in your life. (See my posts from June 2018 at LJRohan.com for more guidance.)
  7. Get at least 7 hours (and ideally 8 hours) of good quality sleep each night. A key here is to be in bed, lights out by 11pm.
  8. Strengthen, or develop new friends: join a group, sign-up for a class, call your old classmates and plan a “want to see” people reunion (none of the bullies or meanies allowed). Volunteer somewhere out of your comfort zone.
  9. Learn to play a musical instrument. Challenging, (I’m doing it!) and so rewarding!
  10. Develop a meditation practice: Eastern-based, religious-based, or spiritually-based meditations are all great, and the benefits come from devoting twenty minutes a day to a structured practice of some kind.
  11. Challenge your brain with Neurobic exercises (see my Fun and Fitness for Your Brain blog post for a few suggestions and more information about this brain fitness approach.)
  12. Love with all your heart, and learn to live from your heart –your emotional brain. ????

Pick and choose from this smorgasbord of delicious options, the more of these you taste and add to your diet, the better you will feel, the sharper your cognitive skills will become, and you will be super-charging your memory! Yum-yum.

Until next time…Be Vibrant!

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Your Brain on Food

Today, I start with the bad news and end with the good news. The latest research tells us that the underlying causes of Alzheimer’s disease begin with having too much sugar on the brain. The average American eats 22 teaspoons of sugar a day; over the course of a year, that’s 152 lbs. of sugar. The American Heart Association says we should aim for a maximum of 6 teaspoons a day. The higher your blood sugar, the smaller your brain. Too much sugar in the brain actually makes the brain shrink.

We also eat 146 lbs. of flour a year. Pesticides, especially the herbicide, Glyphosate, which is routinely sprayed on commercial wheat, disrupts gut flora. (Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup.) Sadly, farmers have a much higher risk of dementia than the average person because of their exposure to pesticides.  Andrew Weil, MD, was one of the first experts in nutrition to identify, what he calls “The Dirty Dozen.” These are most heavily sprayed fruits and veggies, and so they register the highest levels of pesticides inside them. Here is the list in order of the “Dirtiest” first: 

  1. Strawberries
  2. Spinach
  3. Nectarines
  4. Apples
  5. Grapes
  6. Peaches
  7. Cherries
  8. Pears
  9. Tomatoes
  10. Celery
  11. Potatoes
  12. Sweet Bell Peppers

Every smart nutrition expert recommends choosing organic for as much of our produce as possible, and especially opting for organic when it comes to eating any of these top ten offenders. I printed out this list and keep it taped to my kitchen cabinet (where all important notes live at my house), to remind me what to buy before I go to the grocery store. I also keep a small printed and laminated version in my wallet for handy reference. (I know that sounds a bit obsessive, but, I love my brain!)

Now for the Good News! 

Our body ranks as one of the most incredibly powerful compositions of cells and fluids in the universe, and it can and will heal itself when we feed it good things. All is not lost, no matter at what age we re-choose what we put in our mouths. 

The smart money is on a plan you might be familiar with, the Mediterranean diet.* This plan isn’t a “diet,” like ones that continue to make headlines: “Lose 20 Pounds in 20 Minutes by Eating Crabgrass,” or other crazy diets that fill magazine pages and bookseller’s tables. This plan is a way of eating for life. The newest research says a diet higher in fat is better for brain health, making the Mediterranean diet an excellent choice for body, gut, and brain health. It’s rich in extra virgin olive oil and fatty fish. Many studies find that the people who follow this way of eating show significantly fewer cases of dementia, Alzheimer’s, and cardiovascular disease. In his best-selling book, The Blue Zones, author Dan Buettner listed the world’s healthiest and longest living people on the planet. What way of eating has each culture followed? Either the Mediterranean diet itself, or a very close cousin to it. 

The Mediterranean diet in a nutshell:*

  • Eating primarily plant-based foods, such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts
  • Replacing butter with healthy fats such as olive oil
  • Using herbs and spices instead of salt to flavor foods
  • Limiting red meat to no more than a few times a month
  • Eating fish and poultry at least twice a week

To this, Mark Hyman MD suggests eating foods higher in fat such as avocados, and/or adding avocado oil or coconut oil to your daily diet. At every meal fill two-thirds of your plate with veggies—focusing on veggies found below a score of 50 on The Glycemic Index. Look online for this life-saving chart. (Yes, I have a copy of this on my cabinet and in my wallet, as well.) Eating what Dr. Hyman, and others call “smart carbs,” low glycemic carbs, won’t raise blood sugar.  This way of eating benefits both your gut and brain. Your gut flora will come into balance, which will boost your immune system, and slow down the aging process. A double-dip of positive effects! Plus, following this diet will protect your brain from stress and its devastating effects on cognitive function and memory. It will also help you lose weight. A triple-play home run to my way of thinking.

Choosing healthy fats vs. empty carbs to fuel the body is the way to go.  A recent study, from the Mayo Clinic, in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, found that people who ate higher fat sources for calories had a 44% reduction in risk of dementia as opposed to an 86% increased risk of dementia by those who ate a more traditionally American diet of refined carbohydrates. Add to that a rainbow of organic veggies at each meal, meat as a rare treat, and plenty of high-quality filtered water and you could live a long and healthy life just like the folks in Dan Buettner’s study. 

Until next time…Be Vibrant!

*https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/mediterranean-diet/art-20047801

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The Gut-Brain Connection

We are beginning to hear and read about a new health-related term, the gut-brain connection. Soon, I predict, this topic will be everywhere.  So what in the devil’s name is the gut brain connection, and how is it related to the aging brain and brain health? Ahhh, I am so glad you asked! 

“…We are just discovering that the gut is playing a critical role in the health and functionality moment to moment of your brain”

David Perlmutter, M.D.

A few years ago,  in a variety of scientific journals from ones focusing on specific components of the body, like Cell, to ones dealing with all aspects of a disease like, The Rheumatologistscientists and doctors began exploring the relationship between our guts and our brainsIndependently, these groups of researchers found a strong connection between the health of our gut/stomach/colon, (pick your favorite term) and the general health of the rest of the body, most importantly for this discussion, our brain. Wow, that’s BIG news! In fact, a growing number of scientists now refer to the gut as the second brain, saying as goes our gut health, so goes the rest of the body’s level of health. In other words, poor gut health=poor brain health=poor general health.  

Leaky Gut and The Gut-Brain Connection

Leaky gut is a direct example of the gut-brain connection. When we are young and bulletproof, that pretty much proved true for almost everything, including the health of our gut, our gut flora, or as you sometimes see it now, our gut microbiome. Decades of ingesting too much processed food and enough refined sugar to fill an entire train of railcars can hurt us in later years. Inflammation resulting from these food choices takes over our colons and allows the “bad” bacteria (inflammation and disease causing bacteria) of our gut to float off and take up residence in other organs, causing them to become inflamed, cease working efficiently, and eventually be damaged, permanently. This is what is known as leaky gut. In double-step time this bacteria/inflammation killer combo reaches our brains, and before too long starts killing brain cells. No kidding. 

Inflammation Impact on the Brain

Why? Because the brain isn’t equipped to deal well with inflammation. Inflammation begins in the colon when we disrupt the gut flora with a diet high in sugar and refined carbohydrates (processed foods) and by taking medications that wreak havoc with that flora balance. Antibiotics, like penicillin, and Clostridium Difficile, and what Dr. Perlmutter thinks might be the biggest issue: acid-blocking drugs called proton pump inhibitors can all cause inflammation.

When we alter the balance of the gut, it changes the environment in which all strains of bacteria can survive. Certain strains will live and thrive, others will die, and then we lose the favorable balance of the gut microbiome. That leads to leaks in the gut allowing certain bacteria to travel northward, causing brain inflammation, aging of the brain, and impaired brain health. Another side effect of acid blocking drugs is irritable bowel syndrome, and even more importantly, a 40% increased risk of dementia from chronic users of these acid blocking drugs. Add stress into the mix and you create the perfect deadly cocktail for attracting cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease.  

Now for the good news: when we cut down on, and move toward eliminating, sugar and refined carbs, adhere to the regime of vitamins Dr. Ames suggested, and incorporate a few other lifestyle changes I will discuss in the coming weeks, we can rebuild the gut’s Garden of Eden and put our bodies on the path toward being vibrant.  

Until next time…Be Vibrant!

*Interview with Dr. Mark Hyman, 2017.

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Vitamins for Brain Health and Longevity

It seems “dietary supplements”— a product you take to supplement your diet, containing one or more dietary ingredients (including vitamins and/or minerals, herbs or other botanicals, as well as amino acids and other substances) – have been under fire lately in the popular press. Including a lot of press about what vitamins are for brain health and longevity. What makes me madder than being awakened from a delicious nap, a transgression warranting bodily harm, is when these journalists need a headline, and don’t read (or, understand) the actual science.

Thank goodness a highly respected researcher, Dr. Bruce Ames, who has published more than 500 scientific papers in his almost seven decades as a scientist and director of Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute (associated with UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital), has set the record straight. He has given us all some great news about how to slow down the aging clock, increase our longevity, and add quality time to our lives.

Following ten years of research in his lab, and supported by a bushel basket of evidence published by other scientists, Dr. Ames has identified 30 known vitamins and essential minerals, along with 11 additional substances not currently classified as vitamins, which when taken at optimal levels are the best supplements for brain health. He says they should be called “longevity vitamins” for their potential to “prolong healthy aging.” (In fact, this is the title of his article for the National Academy of Sciences.)

Ames found that 70 percent of Americans are deficient in one or more of the vitamins and minerals vital to good health. Not so deficient as to put our health in jeopardy, like contracting rickets or scurvy, but like a dripping faucet that wears away the porcelain on the tub over time, the lack of vitamins and minerals slowly robs us of our vitality and speeds up the decline of our body. It seems Dr. Ames found even minor deficiencies can impact our long-term health. 

To make it easy, here is a list all the vitamins, minerals and other nutrients the latest science suggests we need:*

Vitamins for Brain Health

Biotin, Choline, Folic acid, Riboflavin (B2), Niacin (B3), Pantothenate (B5), Vitamin A, Vitamin B6, Vitamin B12, Vitamin C, Vitamin D, Vitamin E, Vitamin K

Minerals

Calcium, Chloride, Chromium, Cobalt, Copper, Iodine, Iron, Manganese, Magnesium, Molybdenum, Phosphorus, Potassium, Selenium, Sodium, Sulfur, Zinc

Other Nutrients

Alpha/beta carotene, Astaxanthin, Beta-cryptoxanthin, Ergothioneine, Lutein, Lycopene, Omega 3 EPA/DHA, PPQ, Queuine, Taurine, Zeaxanthin

Since any recommendations beyond eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables, lean protein, good fats, and free of processed food, sugar, or refined carbohydrates, and drinking plenty of good quality water is beyond my area of expertise, I suggest finding a reputable nutritionist or nutritional counselor, someone trained not in “dieting” or weight loss, but health. Optimally, this person should be a Dietitian in Integrative and Functional Medicine (DIFM) and/or a RDN, a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. Look for those with a MS degree or PhD. in Nutrition. 

Do your own research beforehand—know what foods are highest in the longevity nutrients. Ask the hard questions to ensure the dietitian you choose is adequately trained to recommend an eating plan and, more importantly, supplementation. I will continue this discussion in this month’s blogs and do my own research as well. My excitement at Dr. Ames’ finding has made it hard to peel me off the ceiling. Lately it feels as if lasting brain health for the all of us might truly be attainable now…just maybe.

Until next time…Be Vibrant!

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*Ames, Bruce N. (2018) Prolonging healthy aging: Longevity vitamins and proteins. Perspective of the National Academy of Science. 43:10836-10844.

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Fun and Fitness for Your Brain

Would you like to remember the names of all the interesting people you spoke with at the New Year’s Eve party? Or even the ones you met yesterday????? How about knowing instantly where you put your keys and your phone? The ability to retrieve this information and to remember so many other important things as we age might just be found by practicing brain-training exercises called Neurobics.

The late Dr. Lawrence Katz, the James B. Duke Professor of Neurobiology at Duke University Medical Center, along with Manning Rubin, coined the term Neurobics as a word and a brain fitness program in the early 2000’s. Since then, other folks have jumped on the Neurobics brain-train, helping people all over the world keep their memories sharp and their cognitive skills humming at near-peak performance. Ever since I found this work, I have tried to incorporate some of its suggestions into my daily life. I will be sharing some of those practices and other amusing Neurobics activities this month in Wednesday’s Wisdom, my new, short video offerings I post on Facebook and in my newsletter.

For a refresher on the brain, have a look at a few of my past posts, Draining Our Memory Bank, Stress and Memory, and Slowing Down Our Clocks. Your science lesson for today: When you stay in our comfort zone, stick to routines, and do the same things in the same ways, as you age, your brain begins to atrophy and decline. This happens most noticeably in your hippocampus, and specifically on the little fingerlings of your nerve cells called dendrites.

Dendrites are the branches on the nerve cells that are particularly with memory. Many people believe mental decline is caused by the death of nerve cells, but, in fact, mental decline comes from the reduction of the number and complexity of dendrites. (The “tangles” we hear about in the brains of Alzheimer patients form at the end of the dendrites.) the nerves.

Practicing brain training exercises like Neurobics strengthens the connection between the synapses, even allowing old nerves to grow new dendrites which compensate for the loss of nerves due to lack of use. The results are the better, faster retrieval of old information, and the truly exciting news: these exercises allow the brain to put new information into memory. Old dogs can learn new tricks, it seems. ☺

The science points to Neurobics as being a full brain workout, similar to playing music. How does Neurobics work? It engages our different senses in reordered and novel ways.

Through our eyes we gather the majority of information we know about the world, and as we get older, this dependence on sight alone becomes so intense that our other senses—touch, smell, taste, and hearing– and the nerve synapses associated with these other senses, decline and stop functioning. That means the quadrants of the brain which register these other senses—anterior cortex, cerebellum, and the temporal and frontal cortex– start cruising through life on auto-pilot, and actually begin to shrink. (Eek!) Neurobics asks us to use our other senses to fire up those sleepy quadrants.

Even more good news: You can do this! Try navigating through your morning using only touch. Choose your clothes and get dressed with your eyes closed. Do your morning tasks in a different order—dress before breakfast or the reverse,  then drive a new route to work while periodically breathing in the aroma of a favorite spice. At work, sit in a different chair or go to a new place for lunch.

These are only a few of the many suggestions for shaking it up, taking a different approach to getting through your day. The exercises are fun, and challenging, and since life should have more fun in it, I think this is a perfect thing to jazz up 2019 and build some new dendrites. Who knows? You could become the star of your social circle by greeting every person at next year’s New Year’s Eve party by their first and last name!

Until next time… Be Vibrant!

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Tapping Into A Better Brain

A number of years ago, before I went back to school to study gerontology, I began noticing articles in a variety of publications suggesting that exercise might just be the key to unlock the door to vibrant health—mentally and physically– as we enter the second half of our lives. As I write this, we now know beyond all doubt that exercising every day is the key to dynamic aging. It will effectively disrupt aging and can stave off a vat full of health problems. Earlier this year in two posts, Shake Your Booty and The Rhythm of the Drums, I explored the latest research citing dancing as one of the outstanding ways to lay down new tracks in our aging brain and grow new brain cells along with sleeker muscles.

If you ever participated in your high school’s annual musical production, or took modern dance or ballet because your mother forced you to, you will remember those students who never got the steps, and who had the grace of a spastic earwig. I confess to being one of those students. Therefore it was with no expectations, and little hope, that I signed up for tap class. The first semester wasn’t pretty, I couldn’t cotton on to this kind of dance; so different from the free-form rock and roll dancing I knew. I would sit in my car after class and cry, disheartened that the parade of life had passed me by and that, maybe, I was too old to get this.  Same experience for the second and third semesters, but by the beginning of the fourth, I noticed a small but encouraging change: I could remember how to execute some of the steps after a few tries, and some days both feet would behave for most of the class. Finally, I could keep up with the routine. My teacher, Vicky, a life-long dancer near my own age, who is demanding but very kind, never gave up on me. My fellow tappers were also free of judgement and full of encouragement. The continuously positive environment was the reason I stayed, unlike years before when a ballet teacher shamed me in front of the class for being such a hopeless beginner.  

Shuffle-ball-change by double-toe-tap, I improved. Some weeks it all flows, and other weeks I just give up and make up my own steps while the others tap out a perfect routine. Over time I learned to joke and laugh at my mistakes, and everyone laughed with me. I gave up trying to be perfect, and let the over-achieving aspect of L.J. take a break on the bench. 

As our time together as a class has increased, everyone has lightened up, we laugh more, and have a lot of fun. Some days we follow class with lunch together. I look forward to my class each week, and miss it when summer comes. About the same time I could follow along fairly well, I noticed my mind felt clearer, a little sharper. Now, even when I am tired I think better, and my thoughts seem more organized. From my research I know the tracks I began laying in my brain two years ago have gone from resembling noodles, to ones stronger than cardboard, to pathways now as strong as wood. That’s only one step away from making permanent steel tracks. Maybe then I can get the routine down on the second or third try. At this moment, I am so grateful I didn’t give up, that I found a new form of exercise I enjoy.  

And, I expanded my world with new friends who share my passion for aging vibrantly. 

 Until next time…Be Vibrant!

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Keeping Our Mental Momentum

We now know what will keep our bodies in great order, but if nothing works in the attic, what good are well appointed rooms and great plumbing?

Cognitive functioning as we age includes a multitude of components. We would need an attic the size of Alaska to store all the luggage. However, I unpacked a few important concepts from both seniors who are doing their best to make each day count, and clinical research. Both camps talk about optimizing one’s cognitive function. Researchers stress the ability of the brain to miraculously tap into other regions to compensate for deterioration of the hippocampus, pre-frontal cortex, and the white matter called Myelin. The seniors list their continual ability to learn new things, which keeps their minds sharp. To “keep going, and the consequential result on the mental attitudes, which are very important,” as one Scot in the UK study so eloquently said. 

The idea of having and setting goals, however challenging, ensures an active life many older adults envision. The analysis of that behavior by scientists reflects the need for a positive view; these seniors see their “future-selves” as active, engaged, and capable of achieving those goals. This data reinforces my last week’s post, where I talked about how a positive attitude can reduce our mental age. We also need self-acceptance, rather than denial, to age vibrantly. This recognition of what we realistically can and cannot do makes the difference between being happy as we get older, and being angry–a fun, upbeat Gran verses a sour-faced, grumpy old Gramps. 

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The complement to self-acceptance could be resilience. Resilience is so very important to aging vibrantly. I see resilience as both a thinking process and an emotional progression that enhances and heightens cognitive functioning. Resilience is determination, it’s grit, it’s our will to thrive when dealt a handful of adversity. Strong will takes mental processing, reasoning, decision-making, and planning—all activities of a highly functioning mind. Not to fog up the mirror, but I also believe one can be vibrant even as these processes diminish. Our will—the passions of our hearts and our desires– often remains as ignited at eighty as it was at twenty, and this positive attitude can be ours until it’s time to fly away with the angels. 

The process not directly mentioned by the seniors, but explored deeply by researchers is retaining memory.  Every day people ask me what to do to hold on to their memory banks.   Even though what scientists think this red-hot minute might be cold ashes tomorrow, for now exercise tops the list, especially non-repetitive exercises like dancing of all kinds, followed by playing an instrument, listening to certain types of music, adequate sleep (which we will talk about in future posts), and one we will discuss next week– a double-dip winner–social engagement. Genetics plays a part in memory retention, but not as large a role as we once thought. Learning a foreign language after mid-life also shows promise for keeping our brain reserves high. Next time I will open the last bag and pull out the findings on how engaging our hearts might just be the secret to truly keeping us vibrant.

Until next time…Be Vibrant!

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Make Love and Music

Thank You to the women and men who serve, and have served, to keep our country safe.

To continue on the Good News Express, today I will talk about more positive results of learning the simplified version of “Moonlight Sonata” on the piano, the easy violin version of the theme from Fiddler on the Roof, or all the guitar chords to Michael Jackson’s, Beat It”. Wait, wait I mentioned serious rock and roll music in the same sentence with good news? Yes, because there is a galaxy of difference between listening to rock music, and playing rock music. No matter what kind of music one plays or on what kind of instrument—from a harmonica to a base cello, the process is identical, and all quadrants of the brain are engaged in the same way. Very cool, no? This is one reason old rockers, even very old rockers, are generally still pretty sharp, if they didn’t fry their brains on drugs and alcohol before they grew up and found juicing. In fact, emerging research shows that lifelong musicians have 68% less cognitive decline and 64% less incidents of dementia than non-musicians.

Again , looking at the leading edge research of Dr. Alison Balbag, we learn that the brains of long-time and professional musicians have extremely high memory retrieval ability, and lose very little of it long past their early 50’s when their non-instrument playing friends experience problems with memory issues and other signs of cognitive decline. The research also shows that adults with a lifetime of music training do not exhibit neural timing delays in either information processing or verbal fluency—that ability I wrote about last week which involves a higher number of words spoken in a set amount of time when describing an image.

  The Adventures of LJ & GE

The Adventures of LJ & GE

One other group of people who show the positive results from instrument playing are those who played as a child. In the last decade or so, study after study point to learning to play and practicing a musical instrument from four to fourteen years during childhood or in the young teen years banks benefits relating to our auditory discrimination by sharpening our neural processing of sound, our verbal and fine motor skills, even our intelligence. The effects last for decades even if we set down our tuba and never tooted another note–even after 40 years! Just like lifelong musicians, childhood musicians showed the least problems with noise-induced timing delays relating to speech. And, they had higher cognitive abilities than those who never played.

To close our discussion this month on the benefits of music, let’s review the facts: Music is one of the most powerful creations on our planet, an expression of the soul of every creature who makes music—from the songbirds in the trees to the dolphins in the ocean to the concert pianist at Carnegie Hall. It soothes us, energizes us, and now we know it also protects us from experiencing declining faculties. No matter when, or if, you have ever thought about playing or learning to play an instrument, I hope I have encouraged you to pick one up and revive your lessons or learn a new skill in your later years. Simply adjusting your listening habits a bit can also have great benefits.. No matter which of these options you choose, you will feel and experience the healing gifts music offers to us all. 

Until Next tine….Be Vibrant!

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Play it Again, Sam

This week I offer more good news on the power of music to help keep us sharp. An extensive study combining two different measures of the findings, and looking at twenty years of research, was conducted at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center at Harvard Medical School. These researchers found strong support for the idea that cognitive decline connected to aging can be, “slowed, arrested, or even reversed through appropriate designed training or activities.”  The study followed healthy seniors for five years—those not exhibiting signs of dementia, who learned to play a musical instrument in their later years, and played it frequently. They found these amateur musicians had less cognitive decline at the end of five years than those seniors who didn’t pick up an instrument or who rarely played or practiced. Additionally, they found that playing an instrument offered superior protection against cognitive decline in comparison to other groups of seniors who read, wrote, or did crossword puzzles. (I can sense a strong reaction from some of you dear readers to those last few words.)

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Why did playing an instrument have such a marked positive effect? Because unlike reading, writing, or crosswords, making music engages every quadrant of your brain. In an article appearing in scientific journals and in National Geographic, Dr. Alison Balbag at the University of Southern California called making music akin to a “full-brain workout” unlike any other. Your science lesson for today: When we play an instrument, like the piano for instance, our frontal lobe– our pre-frontal cortex (PFC), is fired up. This region is especially effected early on by age-related decline, and music puts the brakes on this decline by engaging the PFC in some of the key areas needed for making music-planning, preparation, and the controlled execution of fine motor skills. Making music also strengthens the corpus callosum, the tissue that connects the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Studies now prove the stronger and thicker this connective tissue is, the better our brains work on all levels—we can bring up and react to information faster, and we are quicker at processing that information and acting on it. Good things to have should we need to skedaddle away quickly from a purse-snatcher, bring up the winning question on Jeopardy, or find the bon mot.

Our old friend, the hippocampus, also benefits from making music by furrowing new neural pathways to strengthen our memory. The cerebellum and the amygdala regions are involved with our emotional reactions to music, which are sparked when we listen to music as well as play it, along with all the sensory cortices involved with touch, movement, and visual and auditory responses and processing. The result of all this? These folks had BrainAGE scores– tests measuring one’s cognitive levels– of people noticeably younger than themselves, with less cognitive impairment or decline than non-musicians.

Even more good news: several studies placed senior women who had little musical training and others who had no musical training, into similar short-term, intensive courses (anywhere from 4-6 months) of piano instruction, then tallied the results. It was a winning strategy all around. Some studies gave the participants individual instruction, others placed them in group lessons. Lessons ranged from 45 minutes to an hour once a week, or for 30 total hours over the course of the program. Everyone had some kind of outside homework, either 45 minutes of actual instrument practice three times a week, or written music theory assignments.  Despite a few differences in execution and duration, the results were very positive. All the participants showed increased verbal fluency– they could pull up more words in a given amount of time to describe an image they were shown. They experienced enhanced executive functions, including the processing speed of information, and their working memories were markedly better.

The greatest benefit these seniors exhibited came from their cognitive performance, that is, their increased ability to use what they knew and had learned over a lifetime. They were better able to function and navigate in the world and with others. Incidents of depression went down, their perceived quality of life went way up, as did their subjective well-being assessment. And, they slept better! The final bit of positive information on top of all this good news about learning to play an instrument? The benefits stayed with them up to three months after the lessons ended, giving the researchers reason to speculate that if the seniors had continued, the probability of making those changes permanent a real possibility. Wouldn’t that just be the bee’s knees?

That was a boat load of good news for this week, and I have even more good news about brain and body perks of playing an instrument to share with you!

Until next time…Be Vibrant!

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I Hear Music

We have now firmly established that music and exercise are a stellar combination for holding off cognitive decline and developing new neural pathways. But, what if we take away the element of exercise, and just listened to music, would there be any noticeable, or even significant benefits of music for our aging brains and bodies? I am here to say the answer is a yippee-do-dah YES!

Research first done at the Wallenberg Neuroscience Center in Sweden, and later by researchers in Finland, found that when we listen to music both our listening areas and a smorgasbord of additional neural networks are activated. Your science lesson for today: the bounty of benefits from listening to music are reflected in the part of our brain connected to motor activities (movement and exercise); our creative center; the part of our brain that releases the feel-good chemical dopamine; the area involved with emotions; and, critically important, the Prefrontal Cortex.  This is the part of the brain involved with abstract decision making, social behavior, and in combination with the hippocampus, our precious memory.

benefits of music on the aging brain
The Adventures of LJ and GE™

Benefits of Music on Brain Plasticity

Listening to music seems to improve verbal fluency. There also exists a link between music and language as it relates to our ability to pull up, arrange and compose well-formed sentences. And, it keeps our database of words at the ready. The good news from all this? New research indicates that listening to music induces brain plasticity—our brain’s ability to change, adapt and even grow, which may compensate for age-related cognitive decline. In other words, listening to music could keep our brains young. If that’s not good news, I don’t know what is!    😉

As they say, the devil is in the details, so let’s dive into the deep to see what we need to do to stave off becoming monosyllabic.

The first question is what is the amount of time needed to create change in our brain?

At this moment in time, the science points to one to three hours, basically the length of a symphony or musical concert, a ballet, or an opera. Or, as I think about it, a suburban to urban commute on the bus or train, or a plane flight from Dallas to Washington, DC. What is the best way to get the most benefit from listening to music? By focusing solely on the experience of listening or watching the ballet or opera, or even just concentrating on the scenery without multi-tasking. In other words, be fully present in the moment, to feel, hear, and take in the experience of listening without distraction.

What kind of music does research show creates neuroplasticity in our aging brains?

I have mentioned this before, but the Oscar goes to classical, followed by instrumental, jazz, or any music that doesn’t have a rock and roll beat. Rock and roll music is actually detrimental to our brains (dang it) for a variety of reasons, some of which involve the timbre, tonal, and rhythmic features of rock and roll. I am keeping my fingers crossed that some smart researcher will find that in fact, rock and roll is the magical musical genre that cures dementia and Alzheimer’s in under a month.

However, until I see it published in a respected peer-reviewed journal, it looks as if it’s more Bach and less Bachman-Turner Overdrive on our playlists.

Until next time…Be Vibrant!

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The Magic of the Music

In my blog post, The Rhythm of the Drums, I talked about the power of music combined with movement to create new nerve cells in the hippocampus of our brains, and to make those cells permanent. This neurological payday from music happens with all kinds of movement, including balancing exercises. Additionally, music added to movement fires up more regions of the brain than movement alone. Along with the hippocampus, the cerebellum is activated which is the region responsible for balance, posture, and equilibrium.

What research has found in connection with music and our balance is how much music can enhance our ability to regain or strengthen our balance, putting us light years away from that dreaded crash on the dance floor while twisting the night away.

Music opens pathways throughout our brain. It soothes our sympathetic nervous system (our flight or fight response) and reduces the release of cortisol and adrenaline. All of this results in a decreased physiological state (wired for action) and an enhanced emotional state (relaxed, restful, and chilling). This enhanced emotional state is the condition in which our brains are the most conducive to learning, changing, and growing.  Listening to music while practicing balancing exercises enables us to hold our balance longer by strengthening the muscles used to help us balance. It shores up our equilibrium to keep us upright and steady on our feet. Researchers have also found that people exhibit more flexible movements when music is added to the workout program. That improved flexibility contributes to increasing our balance and most importantly, our reaction time– our ability to recover should we find ourselves spilling over that hiccup in the sidewalk.

Our gait—our manner of walking—is directly tied to our level of balance. Improving our balance helps our gait. The stronger and more uniform our gait—that is equal strength given to stepping with our right leg as stepping with our left, the greater our stability. And, the greater our muscular ability to hold our hips steady, the better our balance will be. Research finds that working on our gait while listening to music is a super-charged way to improve both our walking and our balance. Now, the kind of walking I am talking about here is conscious walking (my term) — walking to help improve balance, which is now taught around the country under a variety of names, and described on the web.

Our brain becomes entrained, or in sync, with the non-verbal music we are listening to—make that jazz, classical, or instrumental, but not rock and roll. Then the rhythm becomes imprinted there, and is later used like a soundtrack in our unconscious mind when we walk. This “soundtrack” encourages us to walk in that same balanced way, even without our earbuds pouring out Miles Davis. By combining music with walking and balancing practices, our movement becomes more focused and our mood brightens. We feel steadier, and we have more confidence that we can stay vertical and mobile throughout our lives.

Until next time…Be Vibrant!

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The Rhythm of the Drums

The last element in our chef salad of movement is music. We all know music is the universal language, but did you ever think it would be like the dressing on the salad that enhances the flavor of all the ingredients making them taste even better? It is, and the research proves it. You just thought listening to Dave Brubeck while on the bike was a way to zone out, but it is actually increasing the size of your hippocampus and developing new neural pathways.

Music, when combined with aerobic exercise, causes out brain to grow in comparison to aerobic exercise done without music. Researchers in Japan found that movement and music have a different effect on the nerve cells in our hippocampus; while movement (exercise of all kinds) created new nerve cells, those cells only survived and became permanently a part of the neuro-landscape when music was added to the mix. The results? Music is looking like a great way to stave off age-related cognitive decline. I will take my magnifying glass to music and the brain in future posts. But for now, let’s look closer at other benefits of tap dancing to the Pointer Sisters.

  The Adventures of LJ & GE

The Adventures of LJ & GE

The winning pair of movement and music shows impressive improvement in our ability to process and understand things we see. This duo also helps us remember where these things are in space and in relation to where we are. Music is a natural to mix with exercise, like baked potatoes and sour cream. Music fires up a bushel basket of different regions of our brains all at once—areas relating to attention, the processing and storing words and language and emotions, memory, and motor functions. And, it does this bilaterally, or on both sides of our brain equally, making it a whole-brain workout second only to playing an instrument.

Related to this, the use of music therapy is recommended for cognitive decline in older adults; it raises their cognitive function, and music is also recommended, and has been shown to improve the gait and stride length in folks with Parkinson’s.

Is there a certain type of music which proves more beneficial for our brains than others? I hesitate to answer yes, however, studies have shown that the most beneficial music for our brains is classical music, instrumental music (jazz, for example), and Gregorian chant. The reasons for these will keep until our discussion on music, but the science isn’t great for the effects of rock n’ roll on our brain health. I have switched to listening to more classical and jazz, but sometimes there is nothing like a little Bob Seger to get my legs moving after a long and tiring day. Then, I switch to Mozart.

Music and exercise together provide us with the most thorough mind/body workout we know of at this moment in time, and if that aerobic exercise is non-repetitive dancing, well, then you truly have it all going for you.

Until next time…be vibrant!

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Shake Your Booty

Research shows that dancing is a promising candidate for countering the age-related decline in our physical and mental abilities. Aerobic exercise helps in both these areas, but dancing offers some unique benefits that will make you want to sign up for that tap class!

We know the hippocampus plays a vital part in our major cognitive processes—memory and learning, but what you may not know is it is also involved with helping us maintain our balance, something crucial for our well-being and quality of life at any age. While aerobic exercise does its magic growing and maintaining our telomeres in our hippocampus, and all the organs and cells of our bodies, it falls off the list when it comes to helping us stay steady on our feet and feeling grounded. Adding a dance class to our weekly regime can tip our balance from tottering and falling off our stilettos to confidently working the room on them.

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The Adventures of LJ and GE™

Even more reason to put on your dancing shoes is what dancing does to the long-term health of our brain. Science lesson for today:  two significant studies, one involving more than four hundred and seventy older adults found that dancing created significant (by research standards) cognitive changes in the participants when compared to traditional repetitive exercise—biking, walking, swimming.  After just six months of regular dance classes, verses regular aerobic exercise, the parahippocampal gyrus (the tissue of the brain that surrounds the hippocampus) of the dancers was bigger. Research also shows skipping the workouts of the parahippocampal regions creates an early red flag on the track towards Alzheimer’s (you can forget that term, now.)  This part of the hippocampus is directly involved with, among other things, storing our memories of last weekend’s great dinner with friends and the important passwords needed to unlock the computers at work.  It’s necessary to process those correctly so that they get filed in the right file—the lasagna recipe goes into the Splurge file; your seven-digit, with at least one capital letter and two even numbers goes into the “Notes” app on your phone. We need to keep it all straight so that later, we can correctly recall everything.

The dancers also showed significant improvements in manual dexterity, spatial memory-remembering where things are in relation to yourself, tactile discrimination-the sensitivity of our fingertips and our ability to tell the difference between textures, different surfaces, and the like. But, best of all their motor skills were much better than the traditional exercise group. For even more good news: following up for 5.1 years afterward, the dancers showed a markedly reduced risk of developing dementia. How great is that for swinging to the beat once a week?

In looking at the details of the dance program, we find what makes this form of fun so beneficial: the dance program required the participants to constantly learn new dance patterns. These folks weren’t just doing the watusi every week. And here in lies the key to its success– making the brain work  hard each week to learn those new steps creates the change and growth of our brain, and muscles. The onslaught of unique information each week challenged the minds of these seniors and forced their brains to lay down new nerve tracks and make new nerve connections. The time period of 18 months seems to be an important factor for making these new pathways permanent. More study is needed, but many signs point toward this length of time.

Knowing this, and since getting my husband to take dancing lessons just didn’t work out in his schedule, I took up tap dancing. I am very, very bad at it, having never done it before, but I can say it has helped my memory. My thoughts come just a little easier, and I can more quickly recall things.  Even my balance has improved a good leap!

Additionally, there is another component contributing to the sustained increase in the cortex volume of our senior dancers: music —the winning combination of music and movement. Stay tuned!

Until next time…dance vibrantly!

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More is Better

Continuing the conversation about exercise and telomeres, let’s review what we know. By getting into our 60% MRH zone for forty-five minutes 3-4 times a week, we increase the number of cells in our hippocampus as well as increase the length of our telomeres. This allows us to process information more efficiently and helps us to remember things more accurately. And, if that weren’t enough good news, there is even more!

New research, from the wonderful, Nobel Prize winning molecular biologist, Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, suggests that the more different types of exercise we fit into our week, the longer our telomeres will be. The longer our telomeres, the less likely we are to develop dementia, or to have the symptoms of dementia affect us, and the better our brains, the better our bodies will function overall. Looking at the data of 6500 participants over three years, Dr. Blackburn and her colleagues saw some improvement in telomere length of those doing one type of aerobic exercise; greater improvement in those fitting in two different types of heart-pumping work, and the greatest change in folks who really mixed it up and dropped four different types of exercise into their weekly workout plan. If you ride the stationary or street bike, and walk each week, you are half-way there, already!

  The Adventures of LJ & GE

The Adventures of LJ & GE

The key to making this a part of our lives every week is to add one new type of aerobic exercise to our agenda at a time. Try adding in an old-fashioned aerobics class, or take a dip in the gym’s pool. I like to swim in the warmer months, and there is nothing better to elongate one’s muscles and get a whole-body toning session like 30 minutes of doing the Australian crawl. Once this third type of workout has become habit—give it a good two months to become a normal part of your week– try adding a fourth type of aerobic workout. Maybe you can pull on that neon-colored spandex (think 1980’s and Jane Fonda) leotard ensemble and rock and sweat to the Bee Gees, or text a friend and spend some time hitting balls on the tennis court. Sadly, for many of us, strength training has not been shown to improve telomere length yet, but of course it is vital for our bodies to do some strength training each week, as well. Even as little as 30 minutes 2-3 times a week, along with your aerobic work, will keep your muscles strong, making your total exercise time 1 hour and 10 minutes per session. Isn’t your brain worth that investment?

Household activities can count as well– vigorous vacuuming, raking leaves with gusto, etc., as long as your heart rate stays up in your 60% range for 45 minutes. The best way to know? Get a heart rate monitor and wear it while you are sucking up the dirt and pollen the dog dragged in. This is your most accurate way of checking. And, of course, wear it when you are at the gym!

No matter what activities you find that get you moving and keep you motivated, aim for 4 different types of areobic exercise as your magic number for optimum brain and body health.

Until next time…Be Vibrant!

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Move It and Improve It

After last week’s post, several people asked me how to determine one’s 60% heart rate number. To determine your heart rate at any age go to the following website: https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/measuring/heartrate.htm. The formula there is 220-your age. I hope that helps!

Today, exercise and Alzheimer’s are our topics, and the news is all good. We know exercise not only creates new brain cells (in our hippocampus), it actually increases the size of our hippocampus. It improves the flow of blood, oxygen, and nutrients through our veins and arteries. Even better, exercise boosts the removal of toxins and waste from our bodies, which can accumulate in all our cells; our brain cells, included. That is good news for the health of our telomeres—those end caps on our chromosomes, as toxins damage our telomeres and impair their function within the cell. Getting rid of those pesky toxins also improves the health of our nerve firings—a key element in memory and cognitive function.

exercise and Alzheimer's
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Not getting enough good quality sleep (shoot for 7 solid hours) and high insulin levels are also associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s, and, you guessed it, exercise improves our sleep, giving our brains and bodies time to downshift and do some vital repairs below the hood. Exercise also helps bring down our insulin levels so that we do not fall into a scary zone called “insulin resistance.” Insulin resistance develops when the cells can’t process insulin properly and it backflows into the blood stream, creating “high blood sugar,” a term we are hearing more and more about today. Insulin resistance is now understood to be a major component contributing to dementia and Alzheimer’s. Stay tuned for more on this topic in future posts.

 Everyone knows exercise is a wonderful stress-reducer. Stress creates inflammation, which is made even worse by high blood sugar levels.  Once women are post-menopausal, and our ovaries have almost completely shut down, our adrenal glands produce most of our estrogen. The adrenals must also continue to make cortisol in response to our crazy, often highly stressed lives of wives, mothers, and US Senators. Since the adrenal glands can make only so many hormones overall, when we are under stress, our adrenals stop making estrogen. As a result, without enough estrogen, the functions in our bodies that depend on estrogen will stop working as well. Research shows estrogen affects telomere length in women. This is one reason women after menopause suffer from more “fuzzy thinking” and cognitive decline. But, good news: there seems to exist a love connection between habitual physical exercise and increased telomere length in postmenopausal women. 

Exercise does so many positive things for our human bodies, and women may actually be the greater beneficiaries of exercise in mid-life and beyond. More research is needed as the science points that way.

Until next time…be vibrant!

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Slowing Down Our Clocks

“Stress increases levels of cortisol, which at high levels is toxic to the brain—in particular to the memory-consolidating hippocampus which is one of the first structures to be assaulted by Alzheimer’s disease.”

The End of Alzheimer’s, Dale E. Bredesen, MD.

Today’s brief science lesson: The hippocampus is located deep inside our brains. It is the part of our brains responsible for, among other things, our short-term and long-term memory storage. As I discussed last time, stress kills cells, all different kinds of cells throughout our body, and a key component of those cells is their telomeres. Telomeres are the protective end caps of our chromosomes—think the plastic tip of a shoelace. Telomeres are found in every cell throughout the body. The longer and stronger our telomeres are, the higher functioning our brains and minds will be, and the less our body will decline and age. The telomeres in our hippocampus cells are involved with memory. Shortened telomeres are found in people with dementia and Alzheimer’s.  I know this is a lot of information to take in, but I want to set the stage for future discussions about exciting new research which can help us slow down the destruction of these two very important aspects of our physical selves.

benefits of exercise on aging
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In a previous post I talked about how stress and cortisol can shrink our brains and damage our memories forever. Now for the really, really great news: there are several ways to not only stop this happening, but reverse it and improve our brains, our memory functions, and our entire bodies. One of the most important is….exercise.

Exercise has emerged in the last few years as so much more important that we previously thought. The smart folks are saying that every neurologist should be prescribing exercise to their patients before they write a script for anything else. We are animals that were born to move—use it or lose it, the saying goes, and that is proving so very true. I will come back again and again to the smorgasbord of benefits of various types of exercise. The list is long, and getting longer.  For our hippocampus and its attending telomeres, aerobic exercise is the answer; vigorous aerobic exercise at 60% of our maximum capacity—the level at which we are breathing somewhat hard, but can still hold a conversation. Your personal 60% will depend on your fitness level, and as you become more fit, it will shift up. Forty-five minutes, at least three times per week, and our telomeres will be healthy– in our brains and throughout our bodies.

 And, here is the even better news: High-intensity interval training (HIIT) stimulates the birth of brand new hippocampus cells. When we rev up the intensity of our workout to our maximum capacity at regular intervals for 20, 30, or 40 seconds, followed by a periods of recovery, our hippocampus receives a message which forces it to adapt and grow to accommodate the onslaught of energy. Our ability to remember improves, our cognitive functions improve, and our lives improve. The response in our muscles and our brains causes a short-term stress response and from this, new cells are created. (An example of when some stress is good for us!) HIIT training is not something to enter into lightly. As older adults, we must gradually build up our capability, even if we have been exercising regularly. The safest way to add HIIT into your workout is to talk with a fitness professional—at your gym or the Y. The trained staff there can help you put together a sensible plan. But—MAKE SURE you speak with a trainer who is trained to work with older adults!!! Ask the necessary questions to find the trainer who understands your needs.

Over the last two weeks, watching the finest athletes compete at Winter Olympics will, I hope, inspire you to get moving– it did me, and those amazing women and men reminded me to get in my aerobic work! The myriad of other gifts from doing regular aerobic and HIIT exercise will keep for another day, but know that by lacing those tennis shoes onto your feet and doing the work, you have the capacity to drastically slowdown your aging. Now, just go do it.

Until next time…Be vibrant!

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Stress and Memory

Have you had any luck with single-tasking this week? Even driving without talking, or texting, is a step forward. Keep at it. The rewards are vast from just being present and doing one thing at a time, the great masters called this mindfulness, and it is something to strive for. Today, I want to delve in a bit more to the effects of stress and cortisol on our brains and our memory.  

I am guessing that many of us thought by the time we were eligible for AARP, as older people were portrayed in movies and television when we were growing up, we would be slowing down and heading for time in the RV to See America First. Somehow, life didn’t quite turn out that way, and I for one, am busier than ever, partly because of our 24/7-always-connected world. This busyness causes stress on our bodies, and raises our cortisol levels at a time when biologically our bodies have down-shifted from firing on all cylinders, all the time, as when we were 25.

  The Adventures of LJ & GE

The Adventures of LJ & GE

Chronic stress– caring for a loved one, a long-term negative work situation, divorce, grieving the death of a spouse/partner/child, financial pressures or health problems, causes our cortisol levels to rise and stay elevated. The result is a cascade of effects that puts our immune system, all our hormonal systems (which help regulate every organ and function in our body), and our neurological system (system of nerves) from head to toe at risk of going haywire. In future blogs I will talk more about the effects of stress on the body. Here, I want to touch on what happens to our ability to retrieve data, store data, reasoning, learning something new—the entire scope of processing  information we are required to do a million times every day.

Consistently high levels of cortisol impairs all these functions—we can’t remember things we once knew we knew, we are unable to hold new information in our minds, and our ability to think and navigate successfully in the world is diminished. This bundle of brain functions are called “working memory.” I think of what cortisol’s short-circuiting does to our working memory like a piano with missing keys; when I play Moonlight Serenade, the missing notes makes Glenn Miller’s classic sound odd. Cortisol has the ability to make our memory act odd. I recall during a particularly stressful period a few years ago, I could not pull up words I wanted to use. My memory would literally go blank, nothing would come– my circuitry was shut down, everyone gone home for the night. It was scary. After the period passed, my word retrieval, along with my ability to remember why I went into a room, returned. I was grateful.

As I mentioned last week, over time and as we get older, chronic stress causes our brains to change shape, and sections—most notably the front part of our brains, will actually shrink, forever ending our ability to have optimal brain or memory function. Sadly, MRI’s show this to be true. When I started my studies to become a gerontologist, I learned in-depth how seriously stress messes with our minds, and as we enter middle age our bodies don’t have the same reserves to preserve brain function.

Right now, this red-hot minute, lowering our stress level should become our #1 priority, because, the good news is: when we do, our bodies and our memory can recover and heal. Starting next week I am going to begin talking about ways to do just that, not only to stop the decline, but boost our health and memory and turn our backs on memory-robbing dementia.

Until next time…Be Vibrant!

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Draining Our Memory Bank

  The Adventures of LJ & GE

The Adventures of LJ & GE

Happy Valentine’s Day week! How did focusing on your positive list of traits this past week make you feel? I hope there might be a little neurological spark deep in your brain as you begin to re-orient your beliefs to be in line with your list. Albert Einstein said, “You can never solve a problem on the level on which it was created.”

Looking at beliefs that might no longer be serving us in our middle years, multi-tasking is a good place to start. We all knew when we were younger we were bullet-proof– able to easily do four things at once with equal ability and quality. Being a little older, and much smarter, we are beginning to find maybe not so much now. The truth is we were never able to do four things at once with the same level of attention as focusing on only one. Science tells us this harsh truth: human brains are not wired that way; our brains work best when focusing on one thing at a time. I was (and sometimes still am) as guilty as any millennial until I read the science behind this truth. Multi-tasking by doing several things at once, or being constantly interrupted and so having to focus on something different than the task before us, does many things, but one key thing is it raises the release of stress hormones in our bodies. This rise in the main stress hormone, cortisol, negatively impacts our level of brain function, leading over time to a short-circuiting of our memory bank. As we zoom into our middle and later years, several other subtle changes are happening in our brains to further impede our memory from working at optimum levels. (We will dive into those interesting topics in future discussions.) The scary news is that too many stress hormones floating around our brains can actually change the way our brain works, shrink the size of our brain and our circuitry, and literally act like a poison, moving us closer to the dreaded “early dementia” column. Seriously.

Now for the good news, since my glass is always way more than half-full. We can re-choose how we allot our time today to add some brain enhancing activities to counter our past choices, and begin boosting our memory.

The first one is to reduce the time in which we engage in multi-tasking. Start slow. Going cold turkey is by far the best for brain health, but probably unrealistic unless you just retired to an island to live out your days selling coconut juice to tourists. For the rest of us worker bees, start with looking at where you could stop the insanity—make a list of tasks or chores that you will, from now on, focus on singularly. Any relief you can offer your brain is a plus. Try to add to the list over the coming days and weeks, not just writing them down, but implementing them as well. Notice how you feel as you begin single-tasking, and if there is any improvement in little remembrances. I am betting there will be. Your cortisol levels will drop, and you might find yourself sleeping better, to boot!

The second part of this is to do everything you can to limit your interruptions throughout your day. Ideally in all aspects of your life, but to be realistic, let’s start at work. Think about ways you can limit physical interruptions—people talking to you, instant reminders of incoming email/texts/voice mails. Set the boundaries you can today, try to keep increasing them until you can implement the third suggestion.

The third part of helping your memory return comes from choosing to carve out 45 minutes of uninterrupted periods of concentration twice a day. Start with once a day, if twice seems too daunting. Gotta walk before you can dance. This will do so many healing things for your brain. You will very quickly notice a difference in your memory.

Last, but not the least by any standard, give your brain a rest. Doing nothing is one of the most productive things we can do in our world today to restore and replenish our minds and bodies. I like to take 40-60 minutes and just chill, eyes closed, thinking of nothing in particular. Granted, some days this is only a dream, but I do write it in my calendar and work to honor that notation with the same commitment as any other appointment. Every little bit helps. It is not an ‘all or nothing’ benefit.

Our memory banks do not have to stay in drawdown mode; we have the power to make generous deposits by choosing new ways of doing things that will add to our lives in every moment. Remember, the brain, given the chance, has the miraculous capacity to improve no matter what our calendar age might be!

Until next time…Be Vibrant!

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