Have you ever noticed that as the years go by, the things that we do routinely sometimes actually turn into ruts that stop challenging us?
As we get older, we gravitate toward things that feel familiar and safe. Same house, same restaurants, same breakfast, same grocery store, same route to and from church, same ice cream flavor. You get the picture…and I totally get it!
Remember in the movie Groundhog Day that Bill Murray’s character, a weatherman, is out to cover the annual emergence of the groundhog from its hole, but he gets caught in a blizzard that he didn’t predict and finds himself trapped in a time warp? I have to admit that these past couple of years I have experienced more than just a few consecutive weeks (maybe months?) that felt like Groundhog Day!
But have you ever thought about how this applies to how we move our bodies or engage our minds while carrying out daily activities?
For instance, how frequently do you use your non-dominant hand to perform a task? Or, when you walk up the steps to your home, do you always lead with the same foot? Our familiar patterns bring about comfort…but how is that affecting our brains?
How Your Brain Impacts Movement
Most age-related memory and motor skill ability loss are due to a lack of brain exercise. When we mindlessly fall into the same comfortable patterns day after day, year after year, we are no longer exercising our brains the way we should — and that’s how we end up settling into ruts. So, essentially, the brain atrophies like any muscle when it’s not stimulated on a regular basis. This can happen at any age — 30 or 90!
And since June is #AlzheimersAndBrainAwarenessMonth, I want to take this opportunity to share some simple things you can do throughout your day to build and strengthen your brain. These are things you will be able to easily add to your routine to improve and maintain brain power — just like you would if you were hitting the gym to develop buns of steel or six-pack abs!
Understanding Alzheimer's/Dementia's Impact So how exactly does Alzheimer's and/or dementia impact the brain?
- Dementia – is defined as “a general term for a decline in mental ability severe enough to interfere with daily life.”
- Alzheimer’s — a specific disease — accounts for 60-80% of dementia cases. Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease, where dementia symptoms gradually worsen over a number of years.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, current estimates are that about 6.2 million people in the USA have Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias, including around 200,000 under age 65 with younger-onset Alzheimer’s. It is predicted that this number could grow to 13.8 million by 2060 unless there is a medical breakthrough.
“Dementia is caused by damage to brain cells that affects their ability to communicate, which can affect thinking, behavior, and feelings. Alzheimer’s is a degenerative brain disease that is caused by complex brain changes following cell damage. The most common early symptom of Alzheimer’s is trouble remembering new information because the disease typically impacts the part of the brain associated with learning first. As Alzheimer’s advances, symptoms get more severe and include disorientation, confusion and behavior changes. Eventually, speaking, swallowing and walking become difficult.” (source: ALZ.com)
About one-third of Alzheimer’s disease cases are preventable, according to research by the University of Cambridge, England. So how can you be proactive and take steps to protect your brain now? BONUS! Experts say that it’s never too late to start!
“What’s the most transformative thing that you can do for your brain today? Exercise!,” says Neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki in her famous 2017 TED Talk.
Suzuki goes on to say, “what if I told you there was something that you can do right now that would have an immediate, positive benefit for your brain including your mood and your focus? And what if I told you that the same thing could actually last a long time and protect your brain from different conditions like depression, Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. Would you do it? Yes!”
Research has shown that movement and exercise have protective effects on your brain.
Suzuki further explains, “the more you’re working out, the bigger and stronger your hippocampus and prefrontal cortex gets.
Exercise Benefits the Brain
Why is that important? Because the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus are the two areas that are most susceptible to neurodegenerative diseases and normal cognitive decline in aging…you’re going to create the strongest, biggest hippocampus and prefrontal cortex so it takes longer for these diseases to actually have an effect.
You can think of exercise, therefore, as a supercharged 401K for your brain, OK? And it’s even better, because it’s free.”
Aside from exercise, Harvard Medical experts also recommend:
getting enough sleep
eating a Mediterranean diet
learning new things
There is also growing evidence that spending time in meditation helps to improve memory and reduce cognitive decline, as studies have shown there to be less atrophy in the hippocampus in those who meditate than in those who did not.
Let’s get back to the subject of movement and exercise though since it has been proven to be one of the best things you can do to help prevent Alzheimer’s.
The folks at AARP recently shared an article 5 Exercises That Can Keep Your Brain Sharp. Although there’s no one exercise that benefits everyone the same, “right now, research supports any type of movement, from walking and dance to tai chi and yoga,” explains Kaitlin Casaletto, an assistant professor of neuropsychology at UC San Francisco.
What else can you do?
Cross crawling is a form of brain exercise. The cross crawl is when you cross the middle line of the body and touch the opposite side in a coordinated way. Cross crawling will reboot your nervous system while connecting your mind to your body.
These movements can also:
- recharge your energy
- focus your attention
- strengthen your body
- And just like in the picture, you can do it while sitting too!
- Lift your right foot, while swinging your left arm in front of you across the centerline of your body. Touch your left hand to your right knee or thigh.
- Now lift your left foot and touch your right hand to the left knee or thigh.
- Keep alternating sides, and repeat this 10 times per leg in a comfortable, rhythmic way.
- Remember to keep a smooth, easy breath as you do these! NOTE: Be sure to keep your upper torso upright…so no tipping back when you lift your foot, which means your core must be engaged!
I challenge you to do something to strengthen your neural connections today…and every day!
Use your non-dominant hand to write your name, or while using the computer mouse or television remote. Lead with your non-dominant leg when walking up steps. Remove dinnerware from the kitchen cabinet with your non-dominant hand…just make sure it’s not your fine china!
Last but not least, cross crawl as you sit behind your desk at work or while you’re watching TV. Your brain and body will thank you for it!
BTW…if you’ve never seen this Wendy Suzuki’s highly engaging TED Talk, watch it now! At 11:03 of the video, Suzuki takes everyone through a fun one-minute movement snack that will leave you feeling “Wonder Woman-strong”.
Who knew that a neuroscientist could have such a great sense of humor?!