By Lawrence Katz, PhD, James B. Duke Professor of Neurobiology and Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute
Millions of people pursue exercise regimens to help them stay physically fit as they age. But what can you do to help your mind stay resilient and youthful as you grow older?
The good news is, quite a lot. Just as you can exercise your body to fight off the effects of physical aging, you can keep your brain stronger longer with special mental exercises. These exercises, which I call “Neurobics,” are based on the latest findings from leading neurobiology labs at Duke and around the world.
Brain cells learn by literally making new connections with one another. For a long time, it was assumed that these connections could only be established during youth. But new scientific evidence shows the opposite: Even quite late in life, the brain has quite a lot of residual capacity to reorganize and “rewire” itself.
Because a huge area of our brain is devoted to processing sensory inputs, Neurobics uses the full range of senses (often marginalized by modern conveniences and daily routines) to help forge new connections among the different sensory structures of the brain. The exercises are easy, fun, and simple. Yet, if done on a regular basis, they will help keep your mind fit to meet any challenge–whether it’s remembering a name, mastering a new computer program, or staying creative in your work.
To be a Neurobic exercise, an activity must involve one or more senses in a novel way, engage your attention, and add an unexpected element to a routine activity. Try some of the following, and discover the value of “cross-training your brain.”
• Wake up and smell the vanilla. Instead of waking to the usual smell of freshly brewed coffee, try smelling something different–such as vanilla, peppermint, or rosemary. Linking this new aroma with your morning routine will activate new neural pathways.
• Go through your morning rituals–such as combing your hair, brushing your teeth, styling your hair, applying makeup, getting dressed, eating your breakfast, and so on, using your nondominant hand.
• Shower with your eyes closed. Locate the taps, soap, and so on, adjust water temperature and flow, and wash yourself using just your tactile senses. Also try closing your eyes as you get into your car, find your keys, and start the car–and when finding your keys and opening the door when you return home.
• Make a “sensory canister” containing such aromatic substances as sage, thyme, or cloves and take a whiff when you dial a certain phone number. See if it helps you remember the number.
• Learn the Braille numbers for the various floors in the elevator of your office building.
• Turn the pictures on your desktop or shelf upside down.
• Go to new markets, such as an ethnic market, farmers’ market, or bakery, to experience new sights and aromas.
• When traveling abroad, don’t get around in a tour bus, sleep in an American-style hotel and eat at McDonald’s. Instead, rent a car, figure out the roads and drive to a small town where you don’t speak the language, stay in a local bed-and-breakfast, and try unfamiliar foods.
For more information about Neurobics, see “Keep Your Brain Alive,” by Lawrence Katz and Manning Rubin, published by Workman Publishing Co. For information about health care at Duke, call 1-888-ASK-DUKE or visit dukehealth.org.
PLEASE NOTE: This message is not intended to substitute for the advice of a physician. Implementation of any health-related advice should be undertaken in consultation with your physician, particularly if you have an existing condition, are currently receiving medical treatment, or are taking medications of any type.
Source: Duke University Medical Center