When I was younger, I could solve puzzles, finish crosswords, and answer questions quickly and with little effort. If I watched a news segment, I could pull the information to the forefront of my brain quickly and interject it into a conversation, able to present myself as an up-to-date and educated person. I often reflect on those days and think about how nice it was to remember something quickly and efficiently.
As I’ve gotten older, this has proven to be a far more difficult task. I’ll read about recent events or catch the news on a particular topic, and it immediately leaves my brain bank. I forget simple things – often words or names – and it’s so frustrating that I want to scream. I know there’s not a serious issue at hand; I’m not in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s, and I don’t have any physical problems with my brain. It’s just not firing on all cylinders like it used to, and I can’t help but long for the days when my brain worked in a rapid-fire way, pulling names and dates out of thin air with relative ease.
Since Covid, it seems my brain has gotten even slower. I try to work it out by doing crossword puzzles, my daily Wordle, and reading daily. Those little workouts seem to help a bit, but I wonder if there isn’t more that I can do to reawaken my intellect.
I was recently given the opportunity to watch an interview with Dr. Sandi Chapman from the Center for Brain Health at the University of Texas at Dallas. As I sat down to watch the video (found at the top of this article), it was like she was speaking directly to me and answering many of the questions I have about brain health. Can it be improved? Can I increase my brain speed? Is it too late to positively impact my brain health, or have I reached an age where my brain is over the hill, and there’s a vast abyss of forgetfulness ahead of me?
Dr. Chapman’s interview was enlightening and provided a lot of insight into the questions that have been plaguing me. She is certainly an expert in the field, and the Center for Brain Health is at the forefront of brain research. Where other centers try to find only problems – injury, disease, or signs of stroke – Dr. Chapman says, “The Center for Brain Health is the only center in the world that’s focused uniquely on defining the upper potential of the human mind.” Instead of simply trying to find issues, they find ways to enhance and build the brain. As Dr. Chapman says, they “look at how, from very young to end of life, individuals can build capacity.”
Defining Brain Health
Dr. Chapman defines brain health as a “superordinate category of health.” By this, she means that it’s not just one area of focus but a combination of several areas that all come together for increased or decreased brain capacity. The three facets she discusses are mental health, social connectedness, and emotional balance. By working to improve each category, you strengthen the whole.
For example, being socially connected can significantly improve our capacity for learning and retaining information. Covid was detrimental to our mental health because of social isolation and its effects on our brains. According to Dr. Chapman, “The one thing you need to do is go back and build stronger friendships, even when you’ve been in isolation. One or two friendships can do more for your mental health and your clarity.” Those stronger friendships are a natural way to build brain health, and the lack of social connectedness doesn’t just cause loneliness; it can deeply affect your mental health and emotional balance. Dr. Chapman continued, “We know that all of these interweave to support each other to make your holistic brain health better.”
Factors that Negatively Affect Brain Function
As a society, we’ve got a strange fascination with output. We want to do more of something faster than others, and there’s often a quantity over quality aspect to our daily lives. But a get more done in less time focus isn’t good for a healthy brain. According to Dr. Chapman, “50% of what people do is toxic for the brain,” and two toxic traits that are a big part of the problem are multitasking and distracted living.
I’m personally guilty of multitasking on a daily basis. For example, I’ll work on a puzzle while watching my favorite streaming show and take breaks to fold laundry… you get the picture. Like Dr. Chapman says, we think of our brains as ‘use it or lose it’ and assume that doing two things simultaneously will make us better. But the bottom line is: it doesn’t. Research has shown that it actually makes us slower and causes us to make more mistakes.
Distractions are also toxic to our brain health. Again, I’m guilty of letting distractions get in the way of solid focus. If I hear a text come in, I can’t help but check it, and I think that’s become the norm for most of us. But each time you let a distraction get in the way of the task at hand, you prevent your brain from going into a deeper level of reasoning, which frays neurologic connections and keeps our brains from reaching their fullest potential.
One major cause of distraction and multitasking in our lives is technology, or our constant companion, the cell phone. However, that doesn’t mean you need to toss out your phones and tablets. As Dr. Chapman says, “It’s not that technology is bad; it’s just that we allow it to run our lives.” She continues, “Technology has made us shallow thinkers.” Think about it the next time you’re trying to focus and have your phone sitting next to you. Perhaps the out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach would be more beneficial.
How to get Better Brain Health: Eat, Sleep, and Move Your Feet.
When it comes to better brain health, there are steps we can take with minimal effort that can make a world of difference.
- Stop multitasking and try to avoid distracted thinking. To take this a step further, Dr. Chapman recommends you fully focus on one task– distraction-free – for at least 45 minutes in one sitting. It’s far more beneficial to give 100% to a task for a shorter period of time than to spend 2-3 times as long working on it while dabbling in other areas.
- Reset your brain. Take 5 breaks for 5 minutes throughout the day to let your brain catch its breath. It’ll allow you to focus better in the time you are working and help your brain attain a deeper level of thinking.
- Get active. Research has shown that aerobic exercise three times a week for at least 50 minutes can improve the hippocampus and the memory center of the brain. Dr. Chapman says, “When people say they want a better memory, I think, ‘go exercise.'” If you don’t have the time to work out for 50 minutes, just get up and move when you can. Avoid being sedentary for long periods of time, and, if necessary, set reminders to move around every hour.
- Get a good night’s sleep. “One of the most magic elixirs for the brain is a good night’s sleep,” says Dr. Chapman. It allows your brain to clear itself of plaque and toxins, and people that get 7-8 hours of sleep think better, have less anxiety, have better emotional balance, and have better social connectedness. It takes us back to the three facets of better brain health and how they are all interconnected.
It came as no surprise that there are steps that we can take to get better brain health, either by setting better habits or avoiding some of the common pitfalls of our daily lives. But how do you know if it’s making a difference? How do you track your brain capacity to know if there’s a problem before it’s too late? The Center for Brain Health recommends an annual brain health checkup to see if you’re on track.
In fact, you can sign up on their website to participate in a program that allows you to measure your brain health remotely. If you join The BrainHealth® Project, then every 6 months, you get a BrainHealth Index. You can then meet quarterly with a coach who will evaluate the results and guide you on what they mean and the steps you can take to improve your brain health. Between indexes, you’ll have access to tactical brain strategies and exercises that have the potential to improve your memory and ensure brain health.
I admit that by the end of the video, I was intrigued. I would very much like to have a better memory and a stronger brain. I’ll take Dr. Chapman’s advice and eat, sleep, and move my feet. I’ll listen to my hourly reminders to get up and move around and try to get a better night’s sleep. But I also hopped onto the Center for Brain Health’s website to get information on the BrainHealth Project.
Full disclosure: I expected it to be a subscription service you must pay to utilize, and I was pleasantly surprised to find out that it’s free. You just answer a brief questionnaire to see if you’re the right candidate for the study, and then you get started. I signed up and am looking forward to my first brain health assessment, and I’m especially interested in the brain training exercises they offer. Hopefully, this is the first step to enhanced memory and faster thinking. Now, if I could only remember where I put my keys…
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