Cognitive Fitness – A Lifelong Journey
How many times have you heard someone lightly refer to a “senior moment”? We all lose things from time to time or forget a name, but there comes a point when it feels more serious. A favorite uncle can’t join in the conversation anymore. A dear friend needs help remembering recent events. Maybe you’re concerned about how your brain will function as you age.
If your goal is to live younger longer – which is the mantra at Canyon Ranch – then you’ll want your mind to stay as fit as your body. Using new research, technology, traditional wisdom and an integrative approach, our experts can help you achieve that.
Know your mind
When it comes to brain fitness, it helps to know where you are now and how you can enhance function. Ann Pardo, Director of Life Management at Canyon Ranch in Tucson, says her professional team can teach enhancement techniques and assess brain function with traditional methods such as the Wechsler Memory Scale as well as with new technology, which includes leading-edge neurofeedback.
“With our new neurofeedback equipment,” she says, “we can help guests satisfy their curiosity about simple ways to relax the brain and focus. We can do one or two sessions at the Ranch. If they experience the benefit – which many people quickly do – they can pursue a full course of forty
treatments when they get home. It’s an amazing tool that expands our abilities.”
A neurofeedback session feels like a comforting experience in a futuristic setting. Sensors are placed on your head in key spots to read the speed of brain waves. The ratio of speed from front to back and side to side should ideally be in balance, and this technology allows you to practice techniques to achieve that.
“With the sensors in place, you are shown a fractal graphic or maybe an image such as a sailboat,” says Ann. “You can see how your brain waves affect or move these images, and you can learn how to control brain energy to achieve balance.”
Ann says that people feel deep relaxation when they achieve a balanced ratio. Having learned how to focus, they can enjoy the benefits afterward with improved sleep or enhanced performance, for instance.
“Our professionals have been specially trained in this technology to help guests understand its impressive potential for brain fitness.”
Feed your brain
We’ve all heard that we are what we eat – well, that goes for our minds as well as our bodies. That’s because whatever affects overall wellness will affect your brain, too.
Patty Murphy, M.S., C.N.S., L.D.N., nutritionist at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, often consults with guests who want to ensure that their food choices foster brain fitness. She says there are many factors that decide a person’s needs.
“Our strategies are based on the individual’s health history, diet, other medical issues and family history of dementia or Alzheimer’s,” she says. “We look at all the information together and see if we can make improvements.”
Certain conditions are particularly important to brain function. “Vascular health and brain health are directly connected,” Patty points out, “since arterial plaque is a concern in the brain as well as the heart. Diabetes and pre-diabetes are also significant, because of the effect on blood vessels.”
In a full neuronutrition consultation, a Ranch nutritionist looks at a person’s overall health status and current diet to come up with an optimal plan. “We look for omega-3 fatty acids, fruits, vegetables and whole grains to help control any inflammatory process,” Patty says. “If a person has vascular disease or diabetes, we make specific recommendations for those conditions.”
An older person who is already in mental decline can benefit from a change in diet, Patty says, but why not enjoy a healthy diet from the start? “Cardiovascular disease can begin in your twenties, even if the symptoms don’t present until much later in life. You don’t just wake up one morning with cardiovascular disease – so the sooner you transition to a healthy diet, the better you can protect your cognitive health and overall health.” There’s still a great deal we don’t know about brain function and decline, Patty concludes, but good nutrition is always a positive. “At the end of the day, a healthy diet is good for all of us at every age.”
Exercise your gray cells
Not so long ago, the common belief was that babies were born with all the brain neurons they’d get for a lifetime. Today’s science reveals much better news. With new technology, microscopes and research, we’ve learned that new brain cells can be generated at all ages and people can learn new things long into old age. A lifetime of fitness can help.
Exercise physiologists at Canyon Ranch use the latest findings to prescribe fitness programs to optimize brain function. They make their recommendations based on strategic timing of moderate and intense exercise protocols, taking advantage of brain-boosting resources created in the body.
Secreted from skeletal muscle and the brain during cardiovascular exercise, brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, is an ingredient that connects exercise with the brain and acts as fertilizer for brain neurons. In a Petri dish, BDNF has been shown to keep neurons from dying and can spark increased growth and function.
Exercise has also been shown to increase levels of insulin-like growth factor, or IGF, and vascular endothelial growth factor, or VEGF. IGF acts similarly to BDNF and is important for growing new brain cells. VEGF helps the body grow new blood vessels that bring oxygen and fuel to the newly formed brain cells.
BDNF and IGF are stimulated by the body during intense exercise, while moderate exercise fortifies VEGF. Through cardiometabolic tests and other sophisticated measures, experts at Canyon Ranch can define an individual’s exact exertion level for both intense and moderate exercise, which is critical to a strategy for cognitive function. Heart rate is used to determine how much a person should exercise for optimal results. Ideally, the prescription for brain health includes 30 to 60 minutes of cardiovascular exercise four or five days a week. Two of these workouts should focus on intervals with intense exercise; the other workouts should be of moderate, steady intensity. Cognitive-savvy fitness is a benefit for body, brain and peace of mind.
Taking care of your cognitive health fosters healthy habits that make all of life better. On your next visit to Canyon Ranch, explore the multidimensional opportunities to enhance your brain fitness now and far into the future.
People often assume that mental decline comes with age. Is it unavoidable?
In the past, scientists assumed that once you reach middle age, you weren’t going to learn anymore. Now we know otherwise. Some decline may be inevitable, but you can also stimulate learning throughout life. People expect to live into their 80s and 90s now, so we need to give cognitive health the attention it deserves. We all want to live longer – and we want our minds to stay as active as our bodies.
What accounts for the difference between two 90-year-olds – one still sharp and another struggling? Is it the luck of the draw?
There’s no clear test that predicts how a person will age mentally in general, although we can test for a proclivity for Alzheimer’s specifically. Whatever your predisposition, though, it may be modified by other factors. For instance, a person who grows up near toxic wastes or smokes or is sedentary may not get the most benefit from his or her genes. On the other hand, we can help prevent mental decline by exercising, eating a low-fat and low-salt diet, challenging our minds and finding purpose at all stages of life.
Elderly people particularly benefit from maintaining a sense of value in life. They tend to do better among family who respect them or in a community that engages and challenges them. I think of my amazing great-aunt, who’d been a concert pianist and swam a mile in the ocean every day until age 88. Then she was in an accident that left her in a wheelchair. She had to move to a nursing facility where she felt helpless and despondent – until the day she discovered a piano on the premises. A nurse called me to come quickly, that my aunt had wheeled herself over and was playing concertos for everyone there. That changed everything for her.
So, yes, some people have good-luck genes, but you can’t count on that. Genetics are your basic software, but you can upgrade to optimize function. We advise living healthy now, staying engaged in life, and keeping your body and mind active.
Are there medications that can prevent mental decline?
There are some medications that may alleviate progressive cognitive decline by slowing the deterioration of neurons. Gene therapy may also be available to us someday. In the meantime, it’s up to us. We can’t make bad lifestyle decisions now and expect a pill to change the outcome in the future.
What can we do for someone who already shows signs of mental decline?
We can learn a lot from centenarians. They’ve traditionally lived in rural areas, eaten wholesome foods, stayed active, were revered by others and had the spiritual richness of family and community around them. Unfortunately, many seniors today become immobile and isolated, and they may feel irrelevant. These factors can accelerate mental decline, yet these people still have a lot to contribute and can benefit from activity. It’s helpful for them to focus on what they can do today, not on what they did in the past. They can volunteer in their communities, become mentors, read to schoolchildren or simply sit with sick babies in the hospital. They can continue to challenge themselves by learning new things and choosing activities that keep them mentally active. Everyone benefits from being part of a community and living with dignity.
What five things would you recommend to maintain cognitive fitness?
- Eat a wholesome diet, low in fats and salt.
- Exercise regularly.
- Don’t drink to excess or smoke.
- Keep on learning.
- Stay involved in your community.
If this sounds like the recipe for a healthy lifestyle, that’s because it is. Making good decisions every day can help your mind keep up with your body for a long, fulfilling life.