There is an abundance of scientific evidence that we can do things to keep one’s brain intact indefinitely. There also is information that one can use to keep oneself sharp today or tomorrow, such as for a meeting or a social gathering. This information may be useful to any adult at any age.

This column begins by reviewing the current theory that dictates how to keep your brain in good shape. Then, we will examine the maintenance that will keep your brain as it is permanently or temporarily. Finally, we will examine a kind of maintenance that is probably good to use even if research has yet to prove that this kind of maintenance actually works.

Brain Reserve Theory

This theory assumes that everyone's brain has a certain capacity for performing memory and thinking tasks. This capacity comes to us from our parents but it can be decreased later by illnesses and disorders. To the extent that a person can avoid these illnesses and disorders, he or she can keep brain capacity at its best. Some scientists assume that the larger one’s brain capacity is, the longer one can put off Alzheimer’s disease and similar medical conditions. Later in this column, we will consider how it is possible to increase the capacity of one’s brain reserve.

Keeping Your Brain Intact

We keep our brain in good shape permanently by avoiding the diseases and disorders that are known to impair memory and thinking. Below are listed a variety of illnesses or disorders that impair health in serious ways, causing discomfort, pain and in some cases threatening life itself. Some of these medical problems interfere with short-term memory and learning. Other medical problems make it hard for a person to concentrate. If a person has more than one kind of medical problem, he or she will experience an increase in difficulties in memory and thought.

Some of these medical problems can be treated and brought within normal range with medications and certain procedures. However, medications themselves will sometimes have side effects that impair mental processes. If people suspect that they have difficulties in memory and thought due to medicine, they should consult with their physician about medications they could take to avoid these difficulties. If you do not have one or more of these diseases or disorders now, your physician can tell you how to avoid them. In general, many diseases and disorders are avoided by following good habits of living: eating a good diet; engaging in regular exercise; not using stimulants and addictive substances. The diseases and disorders that interfere with memory and thinking are as follows:

• Prolonged periods of stress

• Chronic illness: arthritis; cardiovascular illness; chronic depression; chronic fatigue; chronic emotional instability; diabetes; hypertension; chronic mood disorders

• Uncorrectable losses in sensory acuity due to age – vision, audition, touch

• Addictions: alcoholism; illegal drugs; obesity; smoking

• Brain illnesses: Alzheimer’s disease; cerebrovascular illness; central sleep apnea; dementias; stroke

Listed below are a variety of temporary medical problems that interfere with a person’s powers of memory and thought while a person experiences one of these problems. Ironically, temporary problems are habitual for some people. If a person has a temporary medical problem very frequently, then the problem tends to lessen memory and thinking as if it permanently disables the mind.

Most of these temporary illnesses can be treated with medications and certain procedures. However, as noted above, people should consult with their physician about whether there are medications they can take that may not interfere with memory and thinking. Generally, many of these conditions can be avoided by following good habits of living: eating a good diet; engaging in regular exercise; not using stimulants and addictive substances (oh yes, stay away from salt and msg).

• Mood problems: an emotional upset (bad day); depression

• Age-related memory problems, including difficulty in learning novel information; reduction in mental skills due to not using these skills

• Acute illness: untreated peripheral sleep apnea; common cold, influenza, brief hypertension; correctable losses in sensory acuity with age — vision, audition and touch — that have yet to be corrected

• Physical condition – poor physical fitness; irregular and insufficient sleep; tendency to overeat on occasion; fatigue

• Poor diet: eating food that is high in saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, fatty dairy products and meats; frequent use of alcohol; ingestion of considerable amounts of refined carbohydrates, sugar, and sugar treats; eating no fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, or lean meat.

• Adverse substances: alcohol; recreational (illegal) drugs; legal and illegal stimulants.

Controversial Conclusions

Susceptibility to dementia has been found to decrease as the intelligence and education of people increases.

Brain reserve theory holds that such a decrease is because of a greater amount of interconnected knowledge in the brains of more intelligent and more educated people than in people with less intelligence and less education.

Some scientists believe that people who continue to learn and actively use their brain across their life span reduce their susceptibility to dementia. Similarly, people who actively make use of their mind to solve problems also reduce such susceptibility because active use of the brain increases the strength of knowledge a person possesses.

As a result, people are advised to continue to learn and to stimulate their powers of thought as much as possible. Indeed, products are sold now that challenge a person with memory tasks and problem-solving tasks. In all honesty, science has yet to develop research findings that demonstrate it is better to “use it” than to “lose it.” Nevertheless, there is no evidence that favors learning nothing and thinking as little as possible, so it appears that using your brain as much as possible is good advice to follow.

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