Specific advice on maintaining brain fitness

Illustrating brain fitness: photo of 2 kite surfers whizzing over the sea, keeping fit and having fun.
That’s your wonderful brain up there! Keep it fit like you do your body.

“Brain power: use it or lose it.” Nobody over 50 is unaware of this. But how? By learning new habits of thinking and speaking and paying attention! By shifting away from our automatic way of processing information! Brainfit Coach Jude Walter says we can make specific choices in the way we think and speak. Her guidelines on brain fitness made me sit up. I’m going to start taking her advice. Because it makes perfect sense, given all the reliable data we have about aging.

A press release from Brainfit says,

“we can control three of the four causes of brain aging in just a few minutes a day.”

Scoop, 6 March 2023

OK, you’ve all heard the lifestyle instructions. You believe them and do your best. Learn a new language or musical instrument, sleep, exercise, socialise, eat well, etc. You know these lifestyle factors have a powerful impact on the quality of your life and your cognitive ability in old age.

But Jude Walter’s advice about maintaining brain power kicks in at a different level. It just requires a decision and practice, as we go about our daily lives. All these things you and I can start doing at once, this minute. Only No. 6 is about lifestyle changes. The others are brain changes.

I’m going to quote Brainfit’s whole list of top tips for helping to build strong memories and healthy brains because it is … at once blindingly obvious and … for me, mind-blowing.

No. 1 is what I’m taking on board right now, this minute. For a long time I’ve been busily explaining to myself why I forget things. But that’s a waste of effort, or even self-sabotaging. Like you, I’ve got a great little brain inside my skull. And it can carry on learning. I believe in my memory. Yes, I’ll stick with that.

Numbers 2 and 4 are screaming for my attention. (3 is easy. I’m a poet, I’m a human, I make connections compulsively, relentlessly, unstoppably.) And Number 5 looks like fun. Now… What was number 5 again? Ah yes. Number plates and shopping lists. And what did I just read in the newspaper? Review and summarize! I get it.

  1. Believe in your memory – self-belief is essential to a strong healthy brain. Remember you can control three of the four factors that cause brain aging so never say never and don’t be afraid to try new things.
  2. Focus – When you pay attention and actively register details you are creating strong memory traces. The more memory traces you have, the easier it will be to recall that information later. Think of it like shining a torch on the information you need to recall later.
  3. Connect – Try connecting the information you want to remember to something or someone you already know – it could be an image, a funny story, a song. This will help to further strengthen the memory traces and aid recall.
  4. Rehearse – Repeating the information as soon as possible afterwards is also good for embedding the memory so make a point of telling someone else as soon as you get home or repeat a new person’s name while you are still talking to them.
  5. Practise – Different parts of the brain are activated by different tasks. The key is to try a variety of activities as newness gives your brain a full workout and keeps the mind sharp. It could be as simple as switching from doing the Sudoku to a jigsaw puzzle once a week, walking to the shops along a different route, trying to memorise your shopping list or adding up the numbers on the number plate in front of you while you sit in traffic. If you can do this, you will see a noticeable improvement in memory in just a few weeks.
  6. Look after yourself – good food, water, exercise and sleep are essential for all round health and wellbeing, but they are also extremely good for the brain and memory. Exercise helps to improve blood flow to the brain while water and food fuel the brain, which needs twice as much energy than any other cells in your body!
Read the whole article in Scoop: Use it or Lose it — Simple Advice from From NZ Memory And Brain Health Experts For Brain Awareness Month

Brain training that is not boring or impossible

Ah yes, I did do some formal brain training many years ago, with a US organisation. It was ground-breaking at the time and also expensive. But I got bored doing exercises for their own sake instead of for fun. It became a grind. I suspected that repeating made-up stories and meaningless lists was not going to transfer to my daily life. On the exercises that involved listening to consonants (so important!) I was a big fail and would fail forever, because of hearing loss. I think the experience of doing these exercises diminished my belief in my own capacity to remember, so that was a pretty awful outcome. Maintaining brain fitness must not be boring or it’s all over, Baby Blue.

Standard memory training used to require visualisation. Create a castle in your mind, and locate things you wish to remember in a particular room, for instance. I was a big fail at that too, because I am neurologically incapable of seeing pictures in my mind. No amount of effort or practice will make this possible for me and others like me. (It’s a funny little syndrome, aphantasia.) So attempting to train my memory this way eroded my belief in my own capacity to remember even further.

Research has advanced and I like the Brainfit guidelines far better. They make me feel good already, and positive. I can start doing some of these things already. I know that I frequently don’t pay attention, don’t focus, partly because deep down I have little faith in my ability to remember. I reckon that even a wee bit bit more attention will slow down my personal memory diaspora.

Enlisting friends in developing brain fitness

Maintaining this burst of enthusiasm will be easier if I enlist a couple of friends. I’m thinking of two of us who meet for coffee after Pilates classes or a swim once or twice a week. Maybe they’ll read this. And now and then we can remind each other or congratulate each other when we do something right. And stop saying anything negative at all about our brains! They are awesome. They want to be fitter and stronger and their beautiful best selves. It’s not fair to pick on them.

How about you?

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19 thoughts on “Specific advice on maintaining brain fitness

  1. Cathy Cade says:

    It’s that thing when you open the fridge door and then think ‘What am I here for?’
    You haven’t rehearsed it in your mind because you didn’t expect to forget it. You only just thought of it… and forgot it!
    I’ve always been terrible at remembering faces. (Oncluding in TV series where the actors all seem to look the same.) And names. So that isn’t just age – it’s me.
    I find retracing my steps (or actions, or thoughts…) sometimes helps me remember what I was doing, or thinking, and why I’ve come into the room, or opened the fridge, or what it was that I wanted to add to the shopping list… And, of course, if I close the fridge door or leave the room it’s almost guaranteed that I’ll remember what it was I wanted.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I’ll be working on some of these lifelong problems but not faces. Tried for years, born that way, can’t be helped. But that truth stops me from trying in other areas, and that’s foolish of me.

      1. Cathy Cade says:

        Me too. There’s probably a name for it.

  2. Excellent! I’ve always looked for ways to streamline routines, so I’m up to date on that.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I bet you are 🙂

  3. Suzanne says:

    I will, I will increase my brain fitness. Excellent information and now to put it into action. Thanks for keeping this topic fresh in our minds, Rachel.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      BrainAwareness Month is full of rich pickings this year. There’s so much going on.

  4. How self -defeating those early suggestions from my own country were for you. 🙁
    I like your new ‘go-to’ suggestions. Adding them to my overall discipline of staying ‘mindful’ in my actions instead of on ‘automatic’. That makes a difference for me.

  5. I can’t wait to try some of these! I like the licence plate exercise – numbers have always been a challenge for me. I try to make a word from the three letters on a licence plate, but hadn’t thought about the numbers.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      II fixare on the letters and ignore the words. I can change that 😊

  6. judithhb says:

    Thanks Rachel and I love the idea of adding up the numbers on Number plates. I am going to work on all these other suggestions. I do know that repeating someone’s name sets it into your memory and I used this always on meeting a new person, but of late, I had forgotten. So plenty to work on for the next however many years I have left.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      That’s very true.

  7. Sadje says:

    Good advice! I’ve saved your post and will be coming back to it again

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Excellent 🙂

      1. Sadje says:

        Thanks 🙏🏼

  8. cedar51 says:

    a couple of weeks I was on a trip with a group of friends and a car in other lane was in the same traffic jam – the car had one of those “word numberplates” and the women kept trying to work out what it mean….somehow I worked it out not by the way they spoke the letters but just by the visual “gonana” although I couldn’t remember how it was on the plate, now for here 🙂

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I play that game too, with normal number plates, mainly as a way to recognise friends’ cars. So “JKT” means jacket etc.

  9. Elizabeth says:

    Great tips. I like writing about things I have read since that requires me to pay closer attention as I read.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Yes! So simple yet so powerful. I’m finally getting that.

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