IMEP is Physical Therapy for Your Brain

The truth about the fields of Clinical Psychology and Neuroscience is that we truly know very little about the brain. These fields are relatively young in reference to others. What we thought we knew about the brain 10 years ago no longer translates to today, and the same will probably occur with what we know now and what we will know 10 years from now.

We talk a-lot about different factors that we can participate in to prevent cognitive decline, such as: eating nutrient rich diets, getting adequate sleep, combatting stress, and maintaining physically active lifestyles. Our goal with this program is to not only give participants pertinent and up to date information about these lifestyle factors but also provide them with activities that help boost cognitive activity in the brain.

Research over the years has shown that participating in activities like the ones we produce do aid in promoting cognitive functioning but for more complex reasons than we may believe. Most research designs that study and attempt to manipulate or increase cognitive functioning follow a specific outline. They include activities or prompts that are incredibly simplistic and pair them with activities that are more challenging. The goal is never to be right or get the correct answers, the goal is only to increase activity between cells in the brain.

IMEP is essentially physical therapy for the brain. Each individual has different reasons for being in the classroom. Some may experience more cognitive decline than others, or specific cognitive declines that are different from their counterparts. The experience in the classroom will be different for each person. The needs, opinions, and ultimately the results will be different for each participant- but regardless of all these variations we can be confident that the content that is reaching the classroom is statistically and scientifically shown to produce neural activity.

Activities pertaining to differing topics: We try to incorporate many different activities for different purposes. We often utilize activities such as trivia, math, crosswords, word play games, maze’s, etc. Some of the activities are designed to target specific structures in the brain or specific cognitive functions. For instance, a maze activity is designed to target spatial orientation and the visual centers of the brain that are involved in that cognitive skill. While we are trying to activate and tune specific features, these activities do not only facilitate growth in these departments. Even when we are participating in a maze activity, we are increasing activity throughout the brain entirely. The brain utilizes visual centers, reward pathways, navigation specialized neurons, memory activation, and much more. When we do a math problem, we aren’t only using an area that specializes in math- we use most of the brain.

While some activities are specified for specific growth, the idea is that the brain is overall working at a higher activity level than at a resting state. This increased activity on a whole basis is what actually facilitates growth and aids in restoring some cognitive functioning. In order to achieve this increased level of activity we have to incorporate many different approaches and games in the content; some of which may be easy while others may be quite challenging. Some may be less enjoyable than others, and some may be incredibly intriguing. The goal is, of course, to entertain and create a wonderful atmosphere for participants, but in order for the program to provide true memory enhancement we must have a wide variation of activities that span various levels of difficulty to achieve neuronal activity that produces lasting effects.

“Easy” Activities: You will find in the content that there are a few activities that seem as though they are too simplistic, but there is a scientific reason behind this. If our goal is to increase brain activity to enhance cognitive functioning, then we have to be prepared to cover information that we already know. If I go out for a walk to better my health, my legs already know how to walk but the benefit is for my heart. If someone asked me what 6 + 6 equals, I would immediately say 12 and I may even be offended that they would ask me such a trivial question. I know what 6+6 is, just like my legs know how to walk, but it is for the benefit of my brain, outside of the centers that are dedicated to mathematics skills. When we review or engage in things that seem easy to us it has less to do with whether we are able to do that task. It has everything to do with promoting electric signals that pass from neuron to neuron, ultimately creating plasticity and strengthening these pathways for neurons to follow which keeps our brains healthier.

“Hard” Activities: For activities that appear to be incredibly challenging we can say the same as we did for “Easy” activities, just in reverse. Learning is an integral part of cognitive enhancement. As adults we tend to only do things we know how to do. We decide at some point that learning isn’t essential in our everyday lives; that perhaps we’ve learned enough. If we truly want to create as much activity in the brain as we can and create new neural connections that produce better cognitive functioning, we must learn. Learning is not necessarily always understanding or getting it right the first time. In fact, productive learning often involves being incorrect and failing at tasks before we can develop a true understanding. Failure has a function in the body on a physical level and there is an anatomical reason as to why it is essential.

If I choose to do a new task but I only want to engage in it if I believe I can get it right then I’m not creating new neural pathways; in fact, I’m using existing ones and they aren’t having to work very hard. If I choose to engage in a new task that is complex that I may not have the answers to, then my brain in turn puts out a big question mark. It doesn’t know what to do. So, it works overtime, tries to connect multiple pathways that already exist to come to an answer. When these pathways can’t come to an answer something magical happens. It creates new pathways, extends information to various structures of the brain, and keeps doing so relentlessly until we finally come to a correct answer. Learning in this capacity has the most benefits for the brain and cognitive functioning.

 

 

Hope Robinson serves as the IMEP Content Coordinator. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology with Minors in Cognitive Science and Health & Society from The Ohio State University.

Exercise Can Delay Brain Aging

Recent research by the University of Miami and Columbia University has revealed what many have already suggested – moderate to intense exercise helps to keep your mind sharper and more focused. The study’s author, Clinton B. Wright, associate professor of neurology at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, says “moderate to intense exercise may help older people delay aging in the brain.”

The study, which was recently published in the online issue of Neurology, looked at more than 1,200 people and evaluated their performance on memory and thinking tests as well as MRI scans. After five years the memory and thinking ability of those who did more physical exercise deteriorated at a much slower rate than the others. In simple terms, a person who does more physical work has the memory and thinking capacity of someone who is 10 years younger!

“This is another study that provides more evidence that moderate to heavy physical activity is good for the brain,” says Wright. The average age of the participants was 71 when the study began. The study was funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke at the National Health Institute.
So, go for a jog, a walk, try a round of tennis, or take a yoga class and keep your brain young!

Source: Rabin, Charles. April 5, 2016. “A Little Bit of Exercise Goes a Long Way For Seniors.” The Florida Times-Union. Prime Time. D1.

Favorite Fruits for Memory

We’ve been told that red wine, blueberries, and other fruits and juices are good for our brains, but how do they help?

Many fruits, but especially dark berries and grapes, contain flavonoids, which are phytonutrients – chemical compounds found in plants. Phytonutrients protect the plants and keep them vital. When we eat flavonoid-rich foods, we derive protection and vitality from them, as well.

The flavonoids protect the brain by releasing antioxidants, chemicals that combat the free radicals that erode the very structures of neurons and interfere with neuronal connections. The result is improved memory and sharpened cognitive function.

This is where the dark fruits come in. Blueberries or concentrated blueberry juice, blackberries and black grapes or grape juice with no sugar added, pomegranate juice, and similar fruits are all excellent sources of flavonoids. The darker and riper the fruit, the better.

Some sources say that grape juice may be even better than red wine, since the alcohol in the wine can cause the beneficial antioxidants to break down faster than they would without the presence of alcohol. In one study, women who drank grape juice enjoyed the enhanced cognitive effects even after they stopped drinking the juice. Without the alcohol, the antioxidants remained in their bodies longer and kept working.

Flavonoids are also known to have anti-inflammatory properties. Although the dark berries and grapes are some of the best sources of flavonoids, other tree fruits such as citrus fruits, apples, pears, plums, peaches, apricots, and even bananas contain variations of these helpful phytonutrients.

Sources: Sorgen, Carol. “Eat Smart for a Healthier Brain”. WebMD, 12/18/2008. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/diet/features/eat-smart-healthier-brain#1; Spencer, J.P. (2010). “The Impact of Fruit Flavonoids on Memory and Cognition”. The British Journal of Nutrition,104, Supplement 3: S40-47. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20955649

Mindfulness Techniques to Reduce Stress

We hear, and talk, a lot about stress these days, and there’s a good reason. The power of stress to complicate and even cause disease, pave the way to depression, cause and exacerbate pain, and poison our relationships with ourselves and others, is a formidable one. Our easy access to world events broadens our knowledge and horizons, but also adds weight to the stress we feel just from the concerns of our individual lives.

It’s good news, then, that there are many ways to ease that burden, and mindfulness techniques are among the simplest to apply. They are free, they are natural, and they don’t require the purchase of outside props or services. Here are just a few examples:

  • Sit quietly, in stillness, and take slow, deep breaths. Was the first breath shallower or deeper than the second one? What parts of your body are tense? Do you feel them relax? Are you holding in your stomach, or allowing it to fill with each breath? Pay attention to your own experience and allow yourself to simply be who- and how-ever you are in that moment.
  • Practice focusing on one object. Take your hand, for instance. Notice the skin, the veins, the textures, the shape and length of the nails. Continue to pay attention throughout the day. How do you use your hands? How do you hold them? What do you do with them when you’re not using them?
  • Create a ‘gratitude list’. It’s common to focus on worries, pains, and injustices, and what we focus on colors our attitude, our mindset, and our approach to daily life. Take time to count your blessings, so you don’t take them for granted. It’s ok to acknowledge that things aren’t always peachy, but it’s also good to keep in mind that they could always be worse.
  • Schedule mindfulness ‘wake-up calls’. Life gets busy, our minds get busy, and most of us frequently get lost in our thoughts and tasks throughout the day. Setting a timer to chime every hour or so can remind us to stop and pay attention to our breath, our bodies, our emotions, and our environments.

Mindfulness informs us and enables us to respond to situations instead of reacting. When we make conscious choices, we feel more capable, confident, and relaxed. Stressors will always exist, but they don’t need to rule our lives.

Ways We Improve with Age

A lot of people think of older age as a time of all-around decline and unrelenting complaints about aches, pains, and misfortune. Fortunately, that’s a misconception that is changing. Age brings with it a number of benefits. Here are just a few.

Softer, clearer skin. While sagging skin and wrinkles do occur, our sebaceous glands tend to produce less oil as we age, preventing acne and leaving our skin smooth and dry. In order to prevent too much drying, however, use moisturizer and sun-screen, and stay well-hydrated.

Cognitive skills continue to develop. Contrary to popular belief, some cognitive skills actually improve after middle age. According to the April 2015 issue of Psychological Science, word knowledge peaks in our 60s and 70s, and older adults are also better at gauging other people’s emotional states.

Fewer migraines. A British-based charity for migraine research, The Migraine Trust, found that approximately 40% of migraine sufferers report having no more migraines after age 65. If you are over 65 and continue, or start, having migraines, consult your doctor, as it may be a symptom of an underlying health condition.

Improved self-confidence. Time enables us to rack up accomplishments, check off goals reached, and acquire wisdom from mistakes made. This serves to strengthen our sense of identity and productivity, and helps move us past that early sense of needing to prove ourselves in the world.

More satisfying relationships. Improved self-confidence and a strong sense of identity also equip us to enjoy more satisfying relationships in our later years. Age and experience hand us the tools of perspective and patience, enabling us to re-order our priorities and become more flexible.

Let’s embrace age and celebrate its benefits. A positive attitude supports optimal health!

Source: Doheny, Kathleen. “6 Ways Your Body Gets Better with Age”. Everyday Health, last updated 9/3/2015. Retrieved from https://www.everydayhealth.com/senior-health/ways-your-body-gets-better-with-age/

Challenge Your Brain

When it comes to strengthening your brain, it’s all about challenge. It’s about “stretching” your brain, and encouraging your neurons to reach further than they did yesterday.

People who regularly and frequently (not “every now and then”) engage in mentally challenging activities are much less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.

Below are just a few ways to sharpen your brain and give it the workout it craves.

Read more. Whether you take up reading the newspaper or James Patterson novels, read twice as much as you normally do. Websites count also. Seek out subjects that are new to you, and embrace variety: history, science, literature, poetry. Just read.

Play a game. Dominoes, Trivia Pursuit, Monopoly, Chess – they’re all mentally stimulating and can sharpen your brain (especially if you haven’t played them in a while). Learning a NEW game is even more beneficial. Even video games can improve logical thinking, spatial visualization, and the ability to resolve emotional conflict. The key, again, is variety.

Surprise your brain! Our minds LOVE to be caught off guard – and when they’re caught off guard, they’re stimulated and challenged. These surprises can include taking a different route home or to the store, using your non-dominant hand to eat, etc.

Be sure you get enough activity. It isn’t necessary to take up jogging or start working out at a gym. Any physical activity increases the blood supply to the brain and improves activity between brain cells. Your brain won’t know if you’re moving because you’re doing housework or because you’re on the treadmill– all it knows is that you are moving, and it likes it.

Choose brain-healthy foods. It’s easy to follow this simple rule: If the food is healthy for your heart, it’s healthy for your brain. Some tips include: grill or bake food instead of frying it, eat colorful fruit and vegetables, and add nuts to your diet, especially walnuts and almonds.

Deal with stress in a healthy way. Stress and anxiety are harmful to our brains. Finding a way to relax and handle stress does more than enhance your quality of life; it can also extend your life, prevent premature aging, and reduce the risk of dementia.

Get enough sleep. Experts recommend that adults get approximately seven hours of sleep each night. Though we may think of lack of sleep as simply being annoying or inconvenient, it can have serious adverse effects on our health and safety. If you have persistent problems sleeping, consult your doctor.

Source: December 14, 2015. “Strengthen Your Brain: It’s Easier Than You Think and More Important Than You Realize. Out of Bounds. http://www.thementalfitnesscenter.com/blog/ways-to-strengthen-your-brain/

Weight Management for Cognitive Health

We all know that we need to watch our weight, and that excess weight and obesity can lead to health conditions and complications such as diabetes, high cholesterol, and cardiovascular disease. But new studies also show a link between obesity and cognitive decline.

A 10-year-long British study found that, even among metabolically healthy participants, individuals with higher BMI (Body Mass Index) performed worse on cognitive function tests than those with normal BMI. Those with high BMI and metabolic abnormalities, such as diabetes and/or high cholesterol, demonstrated even greater, and a faster rate of, cognitive decline.

The tests administered to participants included assessments of reasoning, memory, and semantic fluency, all of which are executive functions necessary for the activities of daily living.

Luckily for us, a lifestyle that includes regular exercise and a diet of whole foods in healthy proportions can help us stay trim, leading to vibrant health, longevity, and sharper cognitive functioning.

“Watch You Weight and Help Protect Your Brain”. Health & Nutrition Letter, Volume 3G, 2016, Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.

SIMPLE MEMORY AIDS

Somewhere in our 50s, many of us begin to notice a slowing down in our cognitive processing speed. It may take us a few extra minutes to recall where we left the car in the mall parking lot, or where we placed our keys when we came in from shopping.

According to Dr. Joel Salinas, a behavioral neurology and neuropsychiatry specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital, the primary areas of the brain involved in memory processing – the frontal lobe, the amygdala, and the hippocampus – can slow down with age, injury, health decline, nutritional deficiency, or as a side effect of certain medications such as Klonopin.1 Anxiety, stress, lack of sleep, and depression can also cause brain fog and adversely affect one or more of the processes involved in creating and recalling memories.

Dr. Salinas recommends the following simple tools to aid memory encoding, transfer, and retrieval:

  • Repeat new information out loud. A name, phone number, address, or simple idea can be repeated and used as soon as you hear it or read it. For instance, the next time you go to a restaurant, repeat your server’s name as soon as you hear it, and use it whenever thanking him or her for bringing something over. The repetition gives the brain more opportunities to encode the information, and strengthens the connections between sensory input and data storage.
  • Take notes. Because we’re better at recognition than recall, jotting down lists or keywords helps jog our memory. Sometimes, the act of writing something down strengthens the connection enough so that it’s unnecessary to refer back to the note.
  • Create visual and linguistic associations. For example, if you’ve just met someone whose last name is Lansky, you might visualize land and sky, creating a connection between the new information and something familiar.
  • Break down information into chunks. Instead of trying to remember the individual numbers 3,2,4,7,4,7, remember it as “324”, “747”. This gives the brain only two pieces of information to remember, rather than six separate ones.

A simple lack of attention can result in normal forgetfulness of minor details day to day, but if you find yourself having difficulty paying bills, doing basic chores, cooking, or completing other usual, familiar tasks, speak with your doctor.

“4 Tips to Rev Up Your Memory”. Harvard Health Letter, Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School, July 2017. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/aging/4-tricks-to-rev-up-your-memory?utm_source=delivra&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=GB20171206-Memory&utm_id=733090&dlv-ga-memberid=30662005&mid=30662005&ml=733090