Only a few decades ago, scientist believed that once a person reached adulthood, the brain was completely formed. Brain cells could only sustain damage and eventually die. Today, we know much more. We know the human brain is a dynamic organ with the ability to grow, rewire and heal itself.
The brain is characterized by the ability to make new neurons, called neurogenesis, and the ability to structure and build new neural pathways, called neuroplasticity. These abilities continue throughout our lifetimes.
Armed with this new knowledge, let’s discuss two important things we can do to prevent brain decline:
1. Keep learning new skills.
Learning to do new things is the fountain of youth for the human brain, which contains 100,000 miles of neural pathways. When we learn a something new, remember something, or recognize someone, messages race along these pathways at close to 300 miles per hour, all to enable us to complete a task.
Imagine you want to learn to play a song on the piano, or all the capitols of all the countries in the world. The skill you want to learn is your destination. When you have learned the skill, you have constructed a neural pathway to take you there. Keep building the skill, and you keep improving and perfecting your neural pathway.
Stop using those neural pathways, and your brain begins to atrophy. We used to believe the brain failed as people aged, but now we know brain atrophy is a result of lack of use.
2. Manage stress and protect your brain with mindfulness.
Today most of us live with some degree of chronic stress, and stress is dangerous to our brains. It destroys cognitive function and increases the risk of dementia.
The hippocampus, where memory resides, is where we create new cells. Some of these cells do not survive, however, because stress and depression decrease neurogenesis. In fact, the hippocampus is one of the areas first affected by Alzheimer’s disease. Observing this, scientists have speculated that stress and depression may actually play a role in the development of Alzheimer’s.
Much of the stress we feel is self-generated, through our thoughts. We imagine worst case scenarios, and we think ourselves into a “fight or flight” frame of mind, flooding our systems with adrenaline. We can maintain that high level of stress for extended periods of time.
We can interrupt this pattern using mindfulness techniques.
When we practice mindfulness, we quietly observe our thoughts. We notice but we do not judge. We realize we are not our mind, and that we can change our thoughts. By interrupting the stress response, we reduce the self-generated stress, helping our brains to continue functioning at optimal levels.
Our brains are designed to last a lifetime. Using these two techniques on a regular basis enables us to nurture and protect our precious brains.