Memory loss and lack of mental control are two of the most-feared symptoms of aging. The good news, promises Patt Lind-Kyle, author of “Heal Your Mind, Rewire Your Brain: Applying the Exciting New Science of Brain Synchrony for Creativity, Peace and Presence,” is that maintaining a healthy, active mind is largely within your control.
There is no doubt about it — aging does have its gifts: retirement, grandchildren, increased travel, financial stability and accumulated wisdom. However, as many of us have parents who are reaching “senior citizen’s discount” territory (or maybe even some of us!), the privileges of aging are offset by its darker realities. Sure you’ll get a cheaper ticket once you arrive at the movie theatre and maybe a discounted meal at the restaurant afterward … but first you have to remember where you put your keys so you can get there at all!
It’s one of those clichés that prompts a rueful chuckle and, simultaneously, a shiver of anxiety. Even if you’re not worried about the dreaded “A” word — okay, not too worried — any memory loss can make you feel frightened and helpless.
Don’t fret, Lind-Kyle said. Just as you can stave off loss of muscle tone with weight training and bone loss with calcium, you can “firm up” your brain with conscious mental exercises.
“The good news is that significant memory loss is not an inevitable part of aging,” Lind-Kyle said. “For most people, maintaining a healthy mind is largely under your control no matter how many years you have under your belt. You just have to intentionally focus on keeping your mind in shape.”
Yes, we’ve all heard that a more active mind is a healthier mind, and that we should use our brains in order to keep our memories sharp. This is definitely true, Lind-Kyle agreed, but it’s only part of the equation. If you want to enjoy life as fully as you can for as long as you can, you’ll need to do more than just the crossword puzzle — you’ll need to consciously explore and redirect your brain patterns, a process that has been scientifically proven to be effective.
“It was once believed that, as we age, the brain’s neural pathways became fixed and thus unchangeable, and that we were stuck with our aging brains as they degraded over time,” Lind-Kyle explained. “However, there now exists strong evidence that the brain continues to evolve, change, and adjust throughout adult life in response to our thoughts, emotions, and actions. This concept is called neuroplasticity, and it essentially means that — to refute an old saying — old dogs can be taught new tricks. As a senior, you just have to decide which tricks you want to learn!”
Curious? Skeptical? Perhaps a little of both? Then read on to learn what you can do to boost your memory at any age, and why it works:
First, a recap of what you know. You’ve heard it before: “Use it or lose it.” If you don’t use your brain, its functions will become sluggish and your memory will become fuzzy. In technical terms, the brain space that is allocated to rarely-used functions shrinks because no energy is being poured into its circuits. So (as you’ve also probably heard before) you’ve got to purposefully activate, connect, and grow your brain’s neural networks to prevent such shrinkage.
“There are two ways to make sure that your brain’s neural networks are firing away,” Lind-Kyle shared. “One is through repetitive practice, such as working on a golf swing. The second is through having novel experiences, such as taking a trip to a new place or learning a second language. When either of these things happens, your neuronal connections grow and change, and supportive cells and blood vessels join them in the activation process. It’s great to know that the adult brain can continue to develop as long as we continue to use our mental capacities!”
Next, get your head around the science you probably haven’t heard before. Here’s a newsflash that may or may not surprise you: We humans don’t have as much free will as we think we do. Yes, you’re free to choose what you’d like to eat for dinner and where you’d like to go on your next vacation, but in terms of the really important things — your behaviors, reactions, thoughts, and mindset — many of us are essentially prisoners of our own minds.
“Due to a mix of genetic factors and external conditioning, your brain’s neuronal pathways are wired to cause you to react to various situations and stimulants in distinct ways,” Lind-Kyle explained. “Often, these reactions are not useful — in fact, they can cause your mind to become cluttered and foggy — and over time, they can have negative effects on your health and well-being. The good news is that this dysfunctional programming can be changed through a mind training process that encourages commitment, intention, attention, flexibility, and adaptability.”
Mind training? What’s that? Essentially, there are four brainwaves: beta, alpha, theta, and delta. Ideally, they should all work together in harmony, but one often dominates the others. This leads to dysfunctional thoughts and habits, and “negative feedback loops” of behavior. Mind training — a not-so-flaky form of meditation — helps you to focus on and become aware of each of these four brainwaves, thus triggering the neuroplastic function of the brain.
“Bringing your brain waves out of whack and into synchrony is a key component of really sharpening your mind,” Lind-Kyle said. “By becoming truly aware of your thought processes and emotional responses, you will become better able to identify the behaviors and reactions that are keeping you from peak mental fitness!”
Don’t underestimate the stress/aging connection. Most of us would agree that stress isn’t a good thing. But on the flip side, its effects aren’t as concrete as those of smoking, say, or eating unhealthy foods … right? Wrong, Lind-Kyle said. Stress has very real adverse effects that range from lack of energy to a compromised immune system to higher blood pressure. But of particular concern to the older section of the population are stress’s effects on the aging process. The stress chemicals that collect and circulate continually in your brain and body cause the hippocampus — which is the center for learning and memory — to degenerate.
Lind-Kyle explained: “As we get older and are not as active, our repressed automatic thoughts become more pronounced, and our repressed emotional memories begin to surface. If we are not using some kind of mental training, the rush of anxiety caused by past memories increases, as do the associated brain chemicals. The resulting anxiety, stress hormones, and changes in brain chemistry accelerate the aging process, produce depression, and cause you to become less and less in touch with reality as it actually exists. So you see, it’s imperative to provide stress with an outlet — and mind training is among the most effective.”
Learn to focus your attention and quiet your mind. Try this: Look around, find an object to focus on, and try to hold your attention on it. Did you notice all the thoughts that “popped up” as you tried to focus on the object? In a very real sense, you didn’t fully see the object itself because your mind was so clouded with relating the object to other things, naming it, evaluating it, judging it, etc. Can you see how in other situations this kind of “mental jabber” increases your anxiety and prevents you from acting positively and decisively? Chances are, you spend more time rehashing the past and worrying about the future than you do dealing with the here and now. You’re trapped in a small world of your own making that only constricts with age.
“When your brain is cluttered with unfocused thoughts, several adverse effects come about,” Lind-Kyle warned. “First, your ability to make discriminating judgments that can initiate positive growth is impaired. Second, your mind might wander and become scattered, making it difficult to focus on conversations, reading, or problem solving. Either way, your mental edge is dulled, and you find it harder to remember people, events, and facts because your conscious awareness was never on them in the first place.
“To combat the racing thoughts that speed up your life and distort your focus, always start with simple breathing and muscle relaxation exercises,” she advised. “While focusing on breathing, notice the areas of your body that are the tensest and release that tension as you exhale. By taking a few moments to do this exercise throughout the day, you’ll notice you’re able to focus more easily on the task at hand without being plagued by random, distracting thoughts. Remember — the brain likes direction and purpose!”
Learn to be physically present. When was the last time you stopped to literally smell the roses, enjoy the warmth of the sun on your face, or listen to a beautiful piece of music with no other distractions? For many of us, it’s been awhile. As we grow older, we become so habituated to our sensations that we lose touch with the living reality of our being. You might recognize a tree, for example, but on some level you no longer see it — and that’s a problem. A lack of awareness of your sensations can cause you to become forgetful, to have difficulty meeting deadlines and maintaining a schedule, and to have increased anxiety and stress. You might even experience memory loss because one of the ways by which memories are formed is when the brain stores the information it gains through sensation.
“Your mind needs to be quiet in order for memory to be well-stored,” Lind-Kyle said. “The key is to lock in memory through your body.” She said, for example, if you’re sitting in a chair and you want to remember something you’ve just heard, you’ve got to know that you’re sitting. She said to pay attention to the feeling of your feet resting on the floor and of your back on the chair and this will move you into a place of attention and allow your brain to channel its energy toward memory storage.
“Actually, sensation acts as information and is processed into memories and thoughts, which are then stored in the brain and used as a basis of your knowledge,” the author stated. “I tell people to remember ‘mumble in, mumble out.’ If information enters your brain quickly and haphazardly, that’s how you’ll remember it.
“Ultimately, a great many of the effects of aging that are chalked up to the deterioration of the brain and the body are actually not the results of natural run-down, but of an unconscious lack of mental discipline,” Lind-Kyle concluded. “The brain-mind is facile, flexible, and plastic, and under normal conditions it can change at any age. With regular mind training, your mental edge will remain honed, your memory will remain accessible, you’ll be able to regulate your emotions in a positive manner, and you’ll be able to respond to difficulties with greater ease!”
Patt Lind-Kyle is an author, therapist, speaker, trainer and consultant. She is a former professor at Foothill College, and founder of a learning assessment company that applies neuro-monitoring tools for stress management, health and peak performance. Her research, writing and teaching in the mind/brain field center on using an EEG brainwave monitoring system to help individuals maximize their brain-mind potentials.
She is the author of “Heal Your Mind, Rewire Your Brain: Applying the Exciting New Science of Brain Synchrony for Creativity, Peace and Presence” and has also written a chapter in “Audacious Aging: Building Community from the Inside Out.” She is also the author of “When Sleeping Beauty Wakes Up.” For more information, please visit www.healrewireyourbrain.com.
Also available: Heal Your Mind, Rewire Your Brain: Companion CDs for the Book, which contains six sessions that guide listeners through the exercises and practices relating to each of the four brainwave frequencies as described in the book. The CDs can be used in conjunction with the book or as a stand-alone tool. To download a free mp3 of one of the exercises or to purchase the CDs, please visit http://www.healrewireyourbrain.com/cds.