Paving the Way to Better Memory

It is scary to think that an estimated thirty-five million people worldwide have dementia and roughly 5.3 million people in the United States have Alzheimer's. It is a just another cruel fact of life, that as we age, our brain cells die and synapses weaken. In the process, neural pathways to specific memories are destroyed. But now science has revealed a work-around called neuroplasicity which maybe the secret in delaying or preventing dementia. I became fascinated with this topic after reading Dr Norman Doidge's book, The Brain That Changes Itself (if you are still looking for a good summer read, I highly recommend it.)

Probably the easiest way to think of it is as a system of roads in our brain. As long as we have throughout our life laid down many back roads, we can still access memories if one of the high ways leading to it shuts down. Perhaps for New Yorkers we can think of it as the creative weekend subway re-routings. It is never to late to start. So here are just some of the ways we can supplement our own memory infrastructure.

Bust a move
Perhaps your dancing career ended after your 2nd grade ballet recital only to be resurrected for the electric slide at your cousin's wedding last summer. But you might want to dust off your dancing shoes as dancing could help you preserve your mind. In fact, one study showed that dancing was the only physical activity associated with a lower risk of dementia. The reason dance works is that it requires split-second rapid-fire decision making rather than rote memorization. So new neural pathways are constantly being created. It also integrates several brain functions at once (kinesthetic, rational, musical and emotional). To get the most benefit from dance you want to choose classes that are choreographically challenging with constantly changing phrase work.

Become a Polyglot
No, I'm not suggesting you try some new sexual fad, rather that you might want to explore learning another language. Not only is learning a language fun and allows you to develop a new relation with a different culture, it is also an effective way to fight off dementia. One study published in Neurology showed that seniors who spoke a second language were able to delay Alzeheimer's disease, vascular dementia and frontotemporal dementia by 4.5 years. The reason it works is that speaking more than one language requires a specific type of brain training and attention to switch between languages. So basically you are giving your brain a workout. Moreover speaking more than one language leads to better development of areas of the brain involved with executive function and attention tasks.

Challenge Yourself to Retire Later
Perhaps you have been counting the days to retirement since you started working. But you might want to think about switching careers before starting early retirement as studies have shown with each additional year of work the risk of Alzheimer's disease and other types of dementia is reduced by 3.2 percent. In fact, someone who retires at 65 has a 15 percent lower risk than someone who retires at 60. This maybe do to the fact that working helps to keep you cognitively and socially active. Ever changing technology, although sometimes a source of frustration, creates new pathways as we learn how to do things differently. Also the type of profession one chooses has a big impact. Jobs that require more speaking, developing strategies, conflict resolution and managerial tasks may offer better protection against memory and thinking decline in old age. Such professions include teachers, doctors, lawyers, and architects.

Clear your mind
You know it is good for you but you are probably still not doing it. However you might want to get on the meditation cushion quick as it is great way to prevent cognitive decline. For instance researchers have found that people who meditated at least two hours per week (roughly 20 minutes per day) had less brain atrophy and better brain connectivity than those who didn't. Meditation, because it reduces stress, also decreases the release of cortisol, which has been shown to increase the risk of dementia. Moreover, meditating regularly increases cortical thickness and grey matter which slows down the aging rate of the brain and enhances decision making and memory. Even more amazing is that intense concentration and relaxation can actually lead to the growth of new brain cells.