By Amy Overman, professor of neuroscience and psychology at Elon University
Amy Overman, professor of neuroscience and psychology at Elon University, is an expert in aging and memory including 15 years researching memory in older adults.
I have noticed I am not feeling quite as sharp as I used to feel. Is this normal?
The brain’s speed of processing and memory ability decrease some as a person ages; however, we don’t have to settle for losing that edge. People used to think that the brain was not able to change once a person was an adult. Scientific studies have shown that this is not correct. The brain CAN change. Scientists refer to this as neuroplasticity.
Is there anything I can do to make my brain work better?
Yes, there are several ways to help your brain that do not require medicine. For example, diet, weight, and exercise play a role in your brain health.
How can I improve my diet to help my brain?
Make sure you incorporate antioxidant-rich foods into your diet. Antioxidants prevent damage to your brain cells, called neurons. For example, berries, tomatoes, broccoli, spinach, garlic, kidney or red beans, sweet potatoes, and olive oil are all rich in various types of antioxidants. The old adage, “Eat the rainbow,” is a good one. Making an effort to eat a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables each day is an easy way to start the path toward healthy eating.
How do weight and exercise affect the brain?
Recent studies have shown that obesity is correlated with decreases in brain size (atrophy) in particular regions of the brain. The good news is that exercise can improve brain function. In fact, aerobic exercise has been shown to result in neurogenesis — the growth of new neurons!
What else can I do to improve my brain function?
It is important to reduce your stress as much as possible and maintain a good social network. Stress is interesting because a little stress is good for you, but too much is bad. When you are under stress, your body releases a chemical called cortisol. Too much cortisol impairs the creation of memories and damages the cells in the hippocampus. Intriguingly, scientific studies have shown that social interaction can improve cognition. You should go out with friends and get into an interesting discussion, or plan an event like a party.
What about “brain games”? Do they work?
The critical feature of any cognitive training game is whether it helps you get better at other things, called “domain transfer.” In scientific studies, the cognitive training tasks that have shown the best transfer are the ones that challenge your “working memory,” which you use when actively engaged in manipulating multiple pieces of information. The best way to “train your brain” is to frequently engage in tasks that make you stretch your working memory, like learning a new language or new skill. The original scientific findings are reported in “The role of individual differences in cognitive training and transfer,” published in the scientific journal “Memory & Cognition” in 2013.
Where can I get more information about cutting edge findings on the brain?
The Dana Foundation presents the latest brain research and in understandable format on its website. It also has several print booklets on successful brain aging and a monthly print newsletter, “Brain in the News,” you can read online or have sent directly to your house. Their website is www.dana.org; click on “Publications & Multimedia”, then choose “Print Publications” for the booklets or “Brain in the News” for the newsletter.
Scientific Advancement = YOU!
Every research study about the brain was possible because older adults volunteered their time to help. Please consider volunteering for science. If you are a healthy older adult interested in participating in a research study about memory, please contact:
Cognitive Neuroscience of Memory & Aging Lab
Psychology Department & Neuroscience Program
Elon University, ElonMemoryLab@gmail.com, or (336-298-6624).