North Bay Business Journal
Monday, May 18, 2015, 8:17AM

By Gloria Dunn-Violin

Skills for your brain to thrive as long as you’re alive

With advanced biomedical research and health care practices, our bodies can live 100 years. Yet, our brains start declining at the age of 40. How can we keep our brain in shape to do our best work, create our highest accomplishments and savor retirement — as well as enjoy the rest of our lives?

Exciting discoveries at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in Novato and the Brain Health Center at the University of Texas have found some answers that may surprise you. Sandra Bond Chapman, chief director of the center, said our brains can actually stay vibrant and active into our older years, barring major brain injury or disease. Most importantly, we can make our brains smarter at any age. As our most important resource, our brain must be given the same attention we give our physical and emotional health.

Meet your brain’s CEO — the frontal lobe. It is the largest part of the brain, and your strategic thinker, decision maker and planner. It also has the ability to engage in deeper complex thinking, which inspires our thoughts, productivity, creativity, innovation and success. The frontal lobe is the high-order “cognitive command center” and has the capacity to increase functioning. Yet, in order to access this higher capacity, we need to change how we work and live.

According to scientists, many of us lose 2 percent–3 percent of the blood flow in the brain that supports our thinking processes every decade starting at age 20. On the other hand, re-engaging the brain with complex thinking and other processes can help some people regain from 8 percent to 12 percent of that blood flow in a matter of hours, thereby boosting the brain’s ability to function at a higher level.

Help on the ‘MEND’?

The good news is that scientists agree that knowledge can be maintained and potentially increased with age. And not recalling information immediately at an advanced age doesn’t mean that your memory has disappeared. Information access simply may take longer. At the same time, the brain is wired to be inspired, whereas status quo — and being on “automatic pilot” — can slow it down.

Dale Bredesen, M.D., an Alzheimer’s disease researcher and Buck Institute professor, recently published a study demonstrating the ability to reverse memory impairments in those with mild cognitive impairment. One 67-year-old woman in the study previously had two years of progressive memory loss, which posed a significant challenge at her demanding job. By following his protocol on metabolic enhancement for neurodegeneration, or MEND, she was able to reverse this impairment. She said her memory is now better than it has been in years.

The results for nine of the 10 patients in the study suggest that memory loss may be reversed and improvement sustained with this therapeutic program that involves personalized diet, exercise and supplementation recommendations. Bredesen cautioned that there is still much to be learned and more extensive clinical trials are needed before this program is ready to be offered to the general public.

Decade longer ‘healthspan’

The Buck Institute is dedicated to extending “healthspan,” the healthy years of human life. It does so utilizing a unique interdisciplinary approach involving laboratories studying the mechanisms of aging and those focused on specific diseases. Based on current research involving potential therapeutics, CEO Brian Kennedy, Ph.D., said that, at some point, people will be able to get an extra decade of good health. He said those therapeutics will likely be most successful in those that follow the basics: eat right, exercise, get a good night’s sleep and have a positive attitude about aging.

Whether you work full-time or part-time, or are retired, it is vital to also incorporate the following skills to keep your brain alive and well for as long as you live. Otherwise, you risk losing your mojo.

Avoid distractions

Our multitasking world (with frequent interruptions) makes this difficult. However, by learning to stay focused without interruption, you will accomplish more.

For example, multitasking actually destroys the brain’s connections and can:

  • Cause brain fatigue
  • Reduce efficiency and productivity
  • Lead to confusion
  • Increase stress

Focus on priorities

Chapman said when you’re hunting elephants, don’t chase rabbits. The brain’s prime time is the first two hours of the day. Pick two items from your list of priorities.

Then, work only on these two items during the day — or at least throughout the morning.

Choose what items to focus on and schedule other items for later. This way, you are protecting yourself from feeling overwhelmed by information. Too much data freezes the brain and stresses your system.

Develop a system

How can you be successful when so many “nonproductive activities” command your attention? Let’s face it. Technology constantly solicits us to read, do, buy, attend and more. Some offers are helpful and directly related to our business, while others are outside our interest — but still require us to pay attention to them.

Develop a system to minimize the impact of solicitations, including opting out from lists that aren’t currently relevant to your life.

Give your brain a break

The brain absorbs everything and does not differentiate between important and unimportant information. Our brains need downtime — time to have “a-ha moments.” We need a rested, recharged brain to be more productive — and to think deeply, creatively.

If we are always interrupted, we cannot generate new ideas to improve our bottom line.

Turn off your ‘automatic pilot’

Take in complex and abstract ideas and synthesize them. We need to be ingenious, creative, insightful, and resourceful. Near perfect memory doesn’t challenge the brain. Rote memorization dulls it. Memorization does not equate to understanding.

Finally, keeping your brain healthy after retirement can be the difference between “using it or losing it.” Which do you prefer?

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The New Retirement — A Paradigm Shift is a column by Gloria Dunn-Violin. She is a Certified Retirement Life Coach and Owner of HAVING A LIFE After Making a Living. She is also a speaker and author with over 25 years experience in Organizational Behavior and Development as a trainer, facilitator, consultant, and coach. To contact her, call 415-259-7090, and view the website.