Health & Wellness March 10th, 2015

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How to keep your mind active and your brain ship shape

Brain health as important as heart health, experts say

While the notion of maintaining a healthy brain is often linked to prevention of dementia, mental exercise is important at any age and, according to the Alzheimer Society of Canada, which has declared March National Brain Awareness month, the rules are the same whether you’re 28 or 80.

“We tend to make more memory mistakes as we get older,” observes Dr. Susan Vandermorris, a neuropsychologist who runs a program about the subject at Baycrest on Bathurst Street. “But they’re typically the same mistakes we’ve made our whole life long — trouble with names, forgetting intentions (like walking into a room and wondering why you’re there), misplacing things… and those changes start around your 20s.”

Dr. Vandermorris recommends a dual approach to optimizing brain health and improving your memory: practising healthy lifestyle changes, and adopting strategies to compensate for memory changes and to prevent past mistakes.

The most important lifestyle changes are also the most obvious: exercise and diet.

The Alzheimer Society recommends 30 minutes of moderate exercise every day, which can include anything from a brisk walk to dance lessons, and a diet that supports good cardiovascular health, favouring fruits, vegetables, whole grains and nuts; healthy fats such as olive oil; herbs and spices over salt; and fish or poultry over red meat.

“Blood needs to move through your brain the same way it needs to move through your body, so having a healthy cardiovascular system translates into a healthy brain,” Dr. Vandermorris said.

According to midtown-based clinical psychologist Dr. Joanna Mitsopulos, another important practice is stimulating the mind with new activities. She cites taking up crossword puzzles or sudoku as classic examples, but said a new activity can be as simple as learning a card game or taking a different route to work.

“Once you’re proficient in something, it becomes an automatic response and therefore is no longer challenging,” she said. “Learning a new activity stretches the brain, creates new neural pathways and keeps us active and more present.”

The other facet of optimizing brain health is practising memory-retention strategies, Dr. Vandermorris said. Deciding on a logical place for your keys, cell phone or purse and leaving it there is one strategy. Another is consciously focusing on a task at hand by eliminating distractions such as e-mail.

“Oftentimes when people report forgetting things it’s not that they forgot the thing at all,” she said. “It’s that they didn’t quite pay attention in the first place.”

A person’s focus can be further enhanced by taking notes or by creating distinctive mental pictures to associate with new information — such as meeting someone named Sandy and imagining that person doing cartwheels on a beach.

Regardless of your memory’s sharpness, it’s important to remember that you’ll still make mistakes, Dr. Vandermorris said.

“It’s really hard for people to look at their own mistakes and objectively compare them to those of others, because your mistakes happen inside your head,” she said. “It’s not like your hair turning grey, or having to wear glasses.”

While making memory mistakes isn’t so obvious as that, and a lot of people have anxiety around them, Dr. Vandermorris allows that they are nevertheless normal.