It’s definitely the hot topic in health today. TV and radio talk shows, newspapers, on-line articles, and casual conversation are all focused on it.
The buzz is all about that three-pound super computer in your head that makes everything work. All those brain cells, neurons, billions of synapses and connections busily engaged keeping everything on track. How does it do all this? And importantly, how do we keep it fit, toned, and healthy — and even create a smarter brain?
“The big thing is that everywhere you turn today, there is something on brain fitness,” says Susan W. Hoskins, LCSW, director of the Princeton Senior Resource Center (PSRC). “People come to the center and say ‘Have you heard about this?’ Or ‘did you see the show on TV about it?’ A lot of people today seem to be worrying that if they forget something, it may be the beginning of memory decline, and that they will lose the ability to problem-solve and remember.”
With 10,000 baby boomers turning 65 every day, there will be lots and lots of seniors on the scene. The U.S. Census reports that in 2004, 36.3 million people aged 65 and older lived in the U.S. It is projected that this population will zoom to 86.7 million by the year 2050.
The idea, then, is not only to live longer, but to live better. Good health is crucial to this, and all the research indicates that activity and exercise — mental and physical — along with a healthy diet are the key to successful later years.
Keeping the memory sharp is important for everyone, but it is often a special concern for the older generation. Unfortunately, according to an article in AARP The Magazine, approximately 5.4 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, and researchers believe the number will nearly triple by 2050.
With all of these factors in mind, PSRC is sponsoring a Total Brain Health® Fair on Saturday, October 5th, from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
“We hear all about the latest pharmaceutical advances, computer games, and other strategies for brain health and wonder if they really work,” points out Ms. Hoskins. “Many of us vow to do something, but never get started. Every fall at PSRC, we have a free conference in the community to educate and inform the public about various issues — legal, financial, planning ahead, etc. This year, we decided on brain health and memory — all the things you can do to enhance brain health.”
The keynote speaker is Cynthia R. Green, PhD, an expert in the field of memory fitness and brain health. She is currently assistant clinical professor in the department of psychiatry at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York, and she also founded the Memory Enhancement Program at Mt. Sinai. This is a unique and innovative approach to enhancing memory fitness in healthy adults of all ages.
“Dr. Green created the Total Brain Health® Fair to deliver the concept of better brain fitness to large audiences,” explains Ms. Hoskins. “She concurs with many researchers who say that the best things you can do for brain health is physical exercise, being socially active, practicing good nutrition, and exercising your brain by learning new things. It has to be new and challenging learning, not repeated familiar exercises. She’ll be talking about total brain health, including memory strategies, what to do to keep the brain healthy, referencing body, mind and spirit. All of these are important to brain health.”
Much of the research into understanding the brain today refutes the vintage adage: “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Not so, say the researchers. Indeed, “new tricks” can be learned at advanced ages. And learning something new has immense neurological benefits.
As Ms. Hoskins notes, neuroplasticity is the focus of much of the new research. The brain is not fixed and rigid, but plastic and malleable, and can actually continue to grow or shrink. It can be toned up and sharpened at any age, and be capable of learning new things. “For example, think of the challenges for people who have had a stroke or vision loss. Other parts of the brain begin to take over for the areas that have been lost.”
It has also been determined that one’s lifestyle and personality, behavior, and activities are factors in brain health. Scientists have discovered that the brain is an activity-dependent organ — the more it can do, the better. Even the size of a person’s “life-space” is related to the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. According to a PBS TV series on Smart Brains, it has been shown that people with the largest life-space (those who go out regularly, see friends, engage in activities, and travel, etc.) are half as likely to develop Alzheimer’s.
To live is to accept and experience change. That is a given. Adapting to new situations, accepting new challenges, and handling difficult experiences are all ways to keep the brain sharp. Participating in an acting class brings active engagement, taking part in a dance class provides spatial awareness, as well as exercise. These are positive activities for the brain and the body.
It is often assumed that older people are less likely to seek out new challenges. As are other myths relating to age, this is also refuted by the many older adults who take classes at the Princeton Adult School, attend the various courses at PSRC’s Evergreen Forum and its many other opportunities, and by a New Jersey grandfather with a deaf grandson, who went to a school for the deaf to learn signing in order to communicate with the child.
Motivation is important and the more motivated people become, the more they will accomplish, thus gaining increased self-confidence to do even more. All this activity is good for the brain.
It’s also fun to be active and engaged. The Brain Health® Fair will be a great example of all that is available for people to help keep the brain engaged, and will be entertaining as well.
“The idea is like going to a country fair,” reports Ms. Hoskins. “There will be more than 20 different booths or stations throughout the Suzanne Patterson Center, Monument Hall, and outdoors in the courtyard. People will be able to try their hand at solving puzzles, do yoga, even juggle. The plan is to introduce people to things they haven’t done before. It’s important for them to get out of their comfort zone, and learn different things they can put into practice.
“Those who come to the fair will have two and a half hours to visit various stations which will each feature an activity that you can engage in on a regular basis to maximize brain health. The stations will include physical, mental, and spiritual activities, since we need to engage in all three for the best brain health, and each station will have a different facilitator.
“We expect that every 10 to 12 minutes people will move on to different stations. They will also have opportunities during the Fair to talk with representatives from the many area organizations who provide related services. These organizations support PSRC through this event and make it possible to offer it free to the public.”
Among the activities are dance exercises, gardening, drumming circle, writing activities, “Brunch for Your Brain” (brain health exercises), adult coloring, “Food for Thought” (healthy eating tips and tastes), Wii, and computer games, “Ask the Pharmacist”, “Seven Words of Wisdom (you fill them in), and “Wall of Ideas” on which people include their thoughts on keeping mentally active.
Researchers believe that reduced anxiety improves blood flow to the brain, and an opportunity for meditation will also be available at the Fair.
“There will be a quiet space for reflection for the spiritual dimension of brain health,” points out Ms. Hoskins. “It’s important for people to set aside some quiet time during their day and find ways to help relieve stress. These quiet moments are when the brain takes all the random things and fits them together with the rest of your experiences. I often get my best ideas in the shower. Even deep breathing for 30 seconds when you’re stopped at a traffic light will help. It may not seem like much, but every little bit can add up.”
This eclectic selection of choices at the Fair will keep everyone entertained and stimulated, she believes. In addition, a complimentary continental breakfast will be served at the start of the Fair, and a “brain healthy” lunch will be provided by Brandywine Senior Living at 12:30.
Ms. Hoskins notes that the Fair is sponsored in part by a grant from Janssen Pharmaceutical and that Acorn Glen and AARP are also major sponsors.
“Of course, all our staff is involved in this too. It is only possible because of the dedication of our staff and our many volunteers. I do want to emphasize that the Fair is for people of all ages. It is never too soon to begin working on keeping the brain healthy. What I hope is that people will go home from the Fair with new ideas and will have learned something. For example, ‘I didn’t know that chocolate really is good for you!’ or ‘I always wanted to try Wii, and I loved finding all the websites with games I could do.’
“We take the name ‘resource center’ really seriously. We need to keep ourselves informed, and it is our big responsibility to inform the community.”
To register for the Fair, call (609) 924-7108 or go to www.princetonsenior.org. Admission is free, but donations are welcome. The location is 45 Stockton Street.