Know what brain likes and what it needs to function well

I read this piece in Chinese a few weeks ago. Yesterday I translated it into English for my children and my readers here, hoping we all can benefit from this.

(1) Brain likes color. Color can help memorize things.
(2) Brain can focus well for only 25 minutes. Need a break after 25 minutes.
(3) Brain needs rest. If you feel tired, take a 20-minute nap.
(4) Brain needs high-quality fuel. Don’t feed it junk food.
(5) Brain needs water. It won’t functions well in dehydrated state.
(6) Brain likes challenges. Problem-solving enhance productivity.
(7) Brain has its own rhythm of the day. You can get more done during your brain’s prime time of the day.
(8) Brain and body often interact with each other. If your body acts lazily, brain will think you are not doing something serious. Pay attention to your posture while working on serious matters.
(9) Brain is impacted by smell.
(10) Brain needs oxygen. Get fresh air outdoor.
(11) Brain needs space. It helps brain if you work in a spacious room.
(12) Brain likes clean environment. Getting room organized helps brain to be more organized.
(13) Brain suffers damages from too much stress.
(14) Brain does not know what you can or cannot do. Self-talk gives hint to brain what you can or cannot do. Give positive self-talks!
(15) Brain is the same as muscle, the more you use it, the stronger it becomes.
(16) Brain needs repetition to memorize well. More review, more memorized.
(17) Brain understand faster than your reading speed.
(18) Brain needs exercise.
(19) Brain puts things in their categories by using association. Association helps memory.
(20) Brain likes jokes and humor. You learn more when you are in good mood.

42 tips and tricks for brain health

My son came back yesterday. I translated the following from Chinese to English for both of my children.

(1) Eat with your eyes closed. This will force you to rely on other organs.
(2) Eat more Lecithos-rich food. e.g. peanut, soybean, Edamame
(3) Carry some different coins with you. Try to tell with your fingers which is which.
(4) Watch TV without sound. Try to understand the show from what you see only.
(5) Dink coffee or tea with your nose pinched. Use your tongue to smell it.
(6) Read out loud. Send to your brain what you see.
(7) Learn a foreign language
(8) Do something that you sub-consciously would not do, like trying a whole new dish, taking a new route to a familiar place.
(9) Take a detour to a known place and use your brain to get back
(10) Try using your left hand, if you are not left-handed, to brush your teeth or do something using a different hand
(11) Drink yogurt
(12) Take a break or a walk or deep breath before learning
(13) Go to new places
(14) Try to see things from different angle or perspective
(15) Have a nourishing breakfast
(16) Take a longer time to chew before you swallow
(17) Walk fast, exercise
(18) Use timer to manage your time. Take a break when time is up.
(19) Create joy. Joyful moment is beneficial to your brain.
(20) Determine if your left brain is more developed than the right one or vice versa. You are happiest when you use the side that is more developed.
(21) Have enough sleep
(22) Eat food rich in curcumin which helps fight dementia
(23) Have regular exercise
(24) Shut down the cellphone at a regular interval, so that you can concentrate your brain
(25) frown occasionally, which helps you focus
(26) Keep up with news, new ideas, and new development
(27) Use images. One way to help memorize is to link a concept with a picture.
(28) Create chaos to challenge your brain.
(29) Confirm yourself. Give yourself a hint that you can do it, which helps you reach your goal.
(30) Play games that requires your hands and feet, which helps improve your reaction speed.
(31) Read the writings written by smart people.
(32) Write often, write what you think
(33) Go to museum, which helps reduces stress and tension.
(34) Play puzzles, sudoku, brain-teasers, chess, etc.
(35) Use your fingers
(36) Eat dark chocolate and drink grape wine
(37) Play music instrument.
(38) Drink coffee.
(39) Have a hobby
(40) Make comments in appropriate places
(41) Throw into trash your calculator
(42) Go back to Nature. Crowded and noisy urban environment is detrimental to your memory and your self-control ability.

“How does your memory work?”

I read this one on 2/22/2014, “How does your memory work?” I thought of sharing it here.

“To remember something your brain goes through the following process:
First your brain consciously registers the memory, a process called encoding. The reason most people don’t remember a name straight away is because you haven’t encoded the name – perhaps because you weren’t paying full attention. Next, the brain must consolidate the memory, followed by the last step which is called retrieval.

The best way to improve your memory is to keep remembering the same thing, over and over again. This strengthens the neural pathway to the memory. There are other things you can do to improve your memory; get a regular sleep pattern, eat a balanced diet and exercise often.”

Here’s what I have learned:
(1) Pay attention if you really want to remember it
(2) Review what you just remember, reinforcing it helps make it permanent
e.g. if you want to memorize a piece of poem, commit it to memory first, then review it again and again until you can retrieve it without your active thinking, like the time table you learned when you were little.

Go to art classes, best way to fight memory loss…

On 7/14, while at office, I read this article from BBC site, “What’s the best way to fight memory loss?”

They had an experiment using 30 volunteers. The volunteers were then randomly allocated to three groups and asked to do a particular activity for the next eight weeks. The scientists did their battery of cognitive tests before the activities.

First group were simply asked to walk briskly, so that they were just out of breath, for three hours a week.

Second group were asked to do puzzles, such as crosswords or Sudoku. Again they had to do it for three hours each week.

The final group were asked to take part in an art class which involved drawing a naked man.

“Our scientists redid their battery of cognitive tests and the results were clear-cut. All the groups had got a bit better, but the stand-out group was those who had attended the art class.”

Of course, there are many explanations as why the art class best improves mental ability. For now, just keep in mind this: art is a powerful tool in keeping your brain sharp.

Do include art activities for your brain health.

A new way to challenge your brain

I think it a good brain practice or a way to challenge yourself to see if you can come up with a different word for expressing your idea. Even better, you can learn new words this way. That is, deliberately looking for a different word when you write. Instead of using the one that comes to your mind first and that you have used and overused all your life, see if you can think of or find another one, a synonym, even a totally new word.
use rebuff for reject,
use reprehend or reprobate for criticize
use detrimental for harmful
use advantageous for beneficial
use lucrative for profitable
use approbation for approval
use concur for agree

Please note this is more for brain health than showing off your vocabulary.

Strengthen your neural connections

This is what I read on 1/16/2008, an article written by Tycho Vancreato, “9 activities to help improve your working memory and concentration.”

(1) Brain-healthy eating
(2) Turn on music
(3) Reduce stress
(4) Pay attention
(5) Group things
(6) Think back
(7) Strengthen your neural connections
(8) Include more of your senses in an everyday task
(9) Walk

Detail for number 7:
This is an exercise that can even create new neural connections. Grab the mouse with the hand you normally don’t use it with. It is probably harder to be precise and accurate with your motions. You could easily try some of these exercises everyday. It is important to challenge your brain to learn new tasks, especially processes that you have never done before. e.g.
–Use your opposite hand to brush your teeth
–Dial the phone or operate TV remote
–Draw symmetrically by making the same movements with two hands

Two keys to sharp brain in old age

Here’s a free advice from Harvard Medical School newsletter. Trust me, such freebies are getting less and less. Enjoy!

“Two ways to stay mentally sharp
Regular physical activity helps keep your heart, lungs, and muscles in shape and can stave off the effects of aging. In much the same way, exercising your brain can help keep your mind sharp and your memory intact. Here are two ways to activate your brain.

Keep busy and engaged
The MacArthur Foundation Study on Successful Aging, a long-term study of aging in America, found that education level was the strongest predictor of mental capacity as people aged. The more education, the more likely an individual was to maintain his or her memory and thinking skills. Other research has shown that people who held jobs that involved complex work, such as speaking to, instructing, or negotiating with others, had a lower risk of memory loss (dementia) than people whose jobs were less intellectually demanding.

It probably isn’t the years of formal education or the type of occupation itself that benefits memory. Intellectual enrichment and learning stimulate the brain to make more connections. The more connections, the more resilient the brain. That’s how a habit of learning and engaging in mentally challenging activities — like learning a new language or craft — can help keep the brain in shape.

Stay connected
Establishing and maintaining close ties with others is another way to maintain mental skills and memory. There are several ways that social engagement may do this. Social interaction and mentally engaging activities often go hand in hand (think volunteering or tutoring schoolkids). Social relationships can also provide support during stressful times, reducing the damaging effects that stress can have on the brain.

Social support can come from relationships with family members, friends, relatives, or caregivers, as well as from a religious community or other organized group.

Meaningful, socially engaging activities may prove especially helpful. In a study conducted with the Baltimore Experience Corps, volunteers were assigned to either a waitlist (control group) or a group that helped elementary school children during class and library time. Early results suggested that participants who remained engaged in the program for many months improved their executive function and memory.”

Here are the steps to lower Alzheimer’s risk

I know there is nothing new about this. Still, every time I read something along this line from Harvard Medical School (HMS) newsletter, I feel the urge to share it here. I especially wish my children will pay attention to this as their paternal grandfather was inflicted with senile dementia in his early 70s.

Here are the 5 steps to lower Alzheimer’s risk from HMS:
(1) Maintain a healthy weight. Cut back on calories and increase physical activity if you need to shed some pounds.

(2) Check your waistline. To accurately measure your waistline, use a tape measure around the narrowest portion of your waist (usually at the height of the navel and lowest rib). A National Institutes of Health panel recommends waist measurements of no more than 35 inches for women and 40 inches for men.

(3) Eat mindfully. Emphasize colorful, vitamin-packed vegetables and fruits; whole grains; protein sources such as fish, lean poultry, tofu, and beans and other legumes; plus healthy fats. Cut down on unnecessary calories from sweets, sodas, refined grains like white bread or white rice, unhealthy fats, fried and fast foods, and mindless snacking. Keep a close eye on portion sizes, too.

(4) Exercise regularly. This simple step does great things for your body. Regular physical activity helps control weight, blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol. Moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise (walking, swimming, biking, rowing), can also help chip away total body fat and abdominal fat over time. Aim for 2 1/2 to 5 hours weekly of brisk walking (at 4 mph). Or try a vigorous exercise like jogging (at 6 mph) for half that time.

(5) Keep an eye on important health numbers. In addition to watching your weight and waistline, ask your doctor whether your cholesterol, triglycerides, blood pressure, and blood sugar are within healthy ranges. Exercise, weight loss if needed, and medications (if necessary) can help keep these numbers on target.

Of course, I have to add this last and the most important activity: use your brain daily. Yes, use if you don’t want to lose.

Learning new skills, the biggest boost to senior brain

On 5/5/2014, I heard this news on NRP when I was walking in the morning. “Seniors who learned more difficult skills like digital photography and Photoshop showed the greatest improvement in memory.” Research shows “Only people who learned a new skill had significant [brain] gains.” “The greatest improvement was for the people who learned digital photography and Photoshop.” It must be the most challenging of all activities.

The article is based on this research — “The Impact of Sustained Engagement on Cognitive Function in Older Adults: The Synapse Project.” Below is the abstract of the article.

“In the research reported here, we tested the hypothesis that sustained engagement in learning new skills that activated working memory, episodic memory, and reasoning over a period of 3 months would enhance cognitive function in older adults. In three conditions with high cognitive demands, participants learned to quilt, learned digital photography, or engaged in both activities for an average of 16.51 hr a week for 3 months.

Results at posttest indicated that episodic memory was enhanced in these productive-engagement conditions relative to receptive-engagement conditions, in which participants either engaged in nonintellectual activities with a social group or performed low-demand cognitive tasks with no social contact. The findings suggest that sustained engagement in cognitively demanding, novel activities enhances memory function in older adulthood, but, somewhat surprisingly, we found limited cognitive benefits of sustained engagement in social activities.”

Tips to improve your memory

Here’s a short list, easy to remember and to follow.

1. consume a little bit of caffeine and chocolate
2. sleep on it. Got a good night sleep.
3. work it out, aerobic exercise improve memory
4. eat the right food for brain power, omega-3 fatty acid
5. challenge your brain

Millennials are more forgetful than seniors

I read this article last month, Study Shows Millennials Are More Forgetful Than Seniors by Shelley Emling, posted 08/02/2013. The article is short and disturbing.

“Historically, studies have equated forgetfulness with old age. Indeed, when someone misplaces something like their car keys, people generally refer to it as a “senior moment.” But a new survey tells a different story.

A Trending Machine national poll finds that millennials aged 18 to 34 are, in fact, much more likely than those 55 or older to forget what day it is (15 percent vs. seven percent), where they put their keys (14 percent vs. eight percent), forget to bring their lunch (nine percent vs. three percent) or even to take a bath or shower (six percent vs. two percent).

Generally speaking, two-fifths — or 39 percent — of Americans have forgotten or misplaced at least one everyday item in the past week. The
only thing those 55 and older are significantly more likely to forget? Names (23 percent vs. 16 percent).

So what’s behind the phenomenon?
Patricia Gutentag, a family and occupational therapist, pointed the finger at stress in a statement released by The Trending Machine.

Stress often leads to forgetfulness, depression and poor judgment,” she said. “We find higher rates of ADHD diagnoses in young adults. This is a population that has grown up multitasking using technology, often compounded by lack of sleep, all of which results in high levels of forgetfulness.”

When it comes to gender, The Trending Machine found that women are more likely to forget or misplace everyday items compared with men, (43 percent vs. 31 percent). The reason? The stress of work-life balance issues coupled with increased financial responsibilities have taken a toll.

In addition, regional stress differences can be inferred from the higher level of forgetfulness found in the Northeast compared to those reported in the more relaxed West (51 percent vs. 39 percent).

Despite these findings, memory loss remains a common complaint among the elderly. And ageist stereotypes don’t seem to help. One recent study found that simply telling older people they are forgetful makes their memory worse.”

Being bilingual better than Monolingual

When I cleaned the house recently, I dug out many Time magazines. I read one article from July 29, 2013 issue, “The Power of the Bilingual Brain: Learning a second language can produce a nimble mind” by Jeffrey Kluger. Here are some quotes from the article.

“Research is increasingly showing that the brains of people who know two or more languages are different from those who know just one–and those differences are all for the better. Multi-lingual people, studies shows, are better at reasoning, at multitasking, at grasping and reconciling conflicting ideas.”

“They work faster and expend less energy doing so, and as they age, they retain their cognitive faculties longer, delaying the onset of dementia and even full-blown Alzheimer’s disease.”

“A bilingual brain is not necessarily a smarter brain, but it is proving to be a more flexible, more resourceful one.”

‘Monolingualism is the illiteracy of the 21th century.’

“That exceedingly early start on language only accelerate as it goes along. …the amount of time they spent looking before they got bored and looked away—that indicated their interest and recognition. From 4 to 6 months of age, babies from both monolingual English homes and bilingual French-English homes could tell the difference. But by 8 months, the monolinguals drop out of the race, and only the bilinguals could manage the task.”

For better result, read the article in its entirety.

Two treasures that we all have

During my recent frenzy cleaning drive, I dug up many hand-written index cards that I once wrote when my son was small. One of them has this.
2 treasures that we have

It goes like this.
We all have two treasures: hands and brain.
With our hands, we can make things.
With our brain, we can think.
On the ond hand, we cannot do a good job of making stuffs if we only use our hands without using our brain; on the other hand, we cannot accomplish everything if we only use our brain without our hands.
Only by using both hands and brain can we achieve whatever we want to.

With the leaving of my daughter, I see myself no longer play the parenting role. And looking ahead, what’s the use of keeping parenting books and reading materials. It especially hurts when I see materials like this one that I used when my son was a little boy. I have chosen to throw away anything of this type so that I can focus on the future.

Use your brain to fight mental decline

This is nothing new. Still, as if this were the first time that I learned this, I love keeping these articles here for my friends and my relatives. —Active brain ‘keeps dementia at bay’, 7/1/2013, by Helen Briggs

“Keeping mentally active by reading books or writing letters helps protect the brain in old age, a study suggests.”

“A lifetime of mental challenges leads to slower cognitive decline after factoring out dementia’s impact on the brain, US researchers say.”

Also, “the best way to lower dementia risk was to eat a balanced diet, exercise and stay slim.”

Even though, “More research and bigger studies are needed, … in the meantime reading more and doing crosswords can be enjoyable and certainly won’t do you any harm. ‘The best way to reduce your risk of developing dementia is to eat a balanced diet, exercise regularly and maintain a healthy weight.'”

Practice relaxation might help taming tension headache

Nothing makes your life more miserable or ruin your day more thoroughly than the consistent presence of a dull pain or a feeling of tightness around your head.

Beyond the basics of not skipping meals, having enough sleep, getting things done before deadlines, and not staring at computer screen for too long, here are one more trick that might work for you: relaxation techniques, so we are told by the expert.

“Physical and relaxation therapies can help stave off tension headaches, so long as you practice these techniques regularly. Physical approaches include applying a heating pad to your neck and shoulders to relax the muscles.”

“Exercising these muscles also helps, by strengthening and stretching them. Relaxation exercises that focus your attention on various parts of your body in order to relax and release tension and stress can also help.”

Eat for brain health

This is from CBS, an interview with an author on Food for Thought: Diet to help boost your brain

Bad fats increase Alzheimer’s risk, avoid them
–Saturated fats: dairy products, meat
–Tran fat: donuts, potato chips
–3x to 5x increased risk for those who eat the most
–Metals increase Alzheimer’s risk
1) iron: red meat, liver, cast iron pans
2) copper: from water through pipes
3) aluminum: cookware & utensils

Power food prevent Alzheimer’s These foods should be in your diet everyday:
1) vegetable, leafy vegetables, bananas
2) fruit, dark berries restore memory
3) bean
4) nuts, almonds may lower risk by 60%

Exercise improves brain health
1) Reverses brain shrinkage
2) 30 to 40 minute brisk walk
3) 3x per week

Brain health: keep busy and keep connected

On 2/2/13, I read this piece on brain health from Harvard Medical School newsletter, that is, two simple ways to keep our brains sharp and fresh.

(1) Keep busy and engaged
The MacArthur Foundation Study on Successful Aging, a long-term study of aging in America, found that education level was the strongest predictor of mental capacity as people aged. The more education, the more likely an individual was to maintain his or her memory and thinking skills. People who engaged in complex work had a lower risk of memory loss than people whose jobs were less intellectually demanding.

It is nice to know that “intellectual enrichment and learning stimulate the brain to make more connections. The more connections, the more resilient the brain. That’s how a lifelong habit of learning and engaging in mentally challenging activities—like learning a new language or craft—can help keep the brain in shape.”

(2) Stay connected socially
Establishing and maintaining close ties with others is another way to maintain mental skills and memory. There are several ways that social engagement may do this. Social interaction and mentally engaging activities often go hand in hand. Social relationships can also provide support during stressful times, reducing the damaging effects that stress can have on the brain.

Social support can come from relationships with family members, friends, relatives, or caregivers, as well as from a religious community or other organized group. Meaningful, socially engaging activities may prove especially helpful.

Sleep restores your brain power

Sometimes in July 2012, I read this article from Scientific American Mind, May/June 2012 issue “Sleep’s secret repairs” by Jason Castro. I forgot if I have posted this piece.

“Slumber may loosen the links that undergird knowledge, restoring the brain daily to a vibrant, flexible state.”

“Emerging evidence suggests that sleep also serves as a reset button, loosening connections throughout the brain to put this organ back in a state in which learning can take place.”

Your everyday habit and your mental health, part 2

Continued from yesterday…

Tips for building physical activity into your daily routine:
1) Walk instead of driving when possible.
2) Set aside time each day for exercise.
3) Use the stairs instead of the elevator.
4) Plant a garden and tend it.
5) Take an exercise class or join a health club.
6) Swim regularly, if you have access to a pool or beach.
7) Learn a sport that requires modest physical exertion, such as tennis.
8) Go Mediterranean diets

Your everyday habit and your mental health

I read this research on “your daily habits, lifestyle and your mental health” during Thanksgiving break. In the long run, your daily habits — what you eat and drink, whether you exercise, how stressed you are, and more — affect your mental health every bit as much as your physical health.

Physical fitness and mental fitness go together. People who exercise regularly tend to stay mentally sharp into their 70s, 80s, and beyond.

Research suggests that the exercise should be moderate to vigorous and regular. Examples of moderate exercise include brisk walking, stationary bicycling, water aerobics, and competitive table tennis. Vigorous activities include jogging, high impact aerobic dancing, square dancing, and tennis.

Exercise helps memory in several ways. It reduces the risk of developing several potentially memory-robbing conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke.

Exercise is good for the lungs, and people who have good lung function send more oxygen to their brains. There is some evidence that exercise helps build new connections between brain cells and improves communication between them.

Finally, exercise has been linked to increased production of neurotrophins, substances that nourish brain cells and help protect them against damage from stroke and other injuries.

Stay active to protect against Alzheimer’s

A study, carried out at Rush University Medical Center, showed why it’s important to stay active and exercise. It included more than 700 dementia-free patients enrolled in its Memory and Aging Project at the center. The volunteers self-reported physical and social activity.

There was also a monitor and actograph on their wrists that tracked their activity for about 10 days. They were followed for 3.5 years; 71 of them developed Alzheimer disease.

The slow movers, those in the bottom 10% of activity level, were more than twice as likely to develop Alzheimer disease as the top 10% of exercisers, the ones that moved the most.

The results suggested that activity and exercise matter.

Exercise for Your Brain Health

I read the following on 4/27.
7 Mind-Blowing Benefits of Exercise
1. It reverses the detrimental effects of stress
2. It lifts depression
3. It improves learning
4. It builds self-esteem and improves body image
5. It leaves you feeling euphoric
6. It keeps the brain fit
7. It may keep Alzheimer’s at bay.


Be Physically Active for Your Body and Your Brain

I read this from Time magazine on 1/16/2012, “The Reason for Recess. Children who are more physically active may do better in school,” as if I had not known this for years. Still, I post this one because I don’t see enough exercise in high school students.

When First Lady Michelle Obama advocated “Let’s move,” I think her main intention was attacking childhood obesity. This article reviews numerous research of exercise and our brain.

Data support the findings that “linked exercise with greater productivity and fewer sick days among adults.” According to Center for Disease Control, students need one hour of physical activity everyday to remain healthy.

The short message is — be physically active not just for your body but also for your brain, no matter what age group you are in.

In Learning, Guard Against Auto-Pilot Brain

When I go to work every morning, I get on 435 west. But when we have our department meeting on the 4th Thursday every month at a different location, I need to get on 435 east. On one of these occasions, I allowed myself to follow auto-pilot and head west instead of east for the meeting.

In fact, in our daily life, we are more often guided by our auto-pilot than we realize. Anytime we do something out of sheer habit, without thinking, we are controlled by the auto-pilot.

Sometimes, we can save energy by having auto-pilot take control. But if you want to learn something new or to have new experience, new ideas, or try to think differently, or chart a new path, or break away from a habit, do everything to avoid auto-pilot brain. For, if you are nailed down and controlled by auto-pilot, you will lead a life like a hamster on an exercise wheel, chained, enclosed, restricted, and suffocating.

The Constant Battle Against Mental Decline

Every time my eyes are caught by some tips or tricks promising to keep our mind sharp in our senior years, I cannot help stop everything and take it down. On 1/11/2012, I read an article that offers tips to prevent Alzheimer’s disease. These tips look familiar to me as I read elsewhere similar ones. Still, I have to keep them here, for fear of forgetting them.

Exercise outside
Eat Vegetables and Fruits
Increase your Intake of Omega-3 Fatty Acids (fish oil)
Drink Vegetable Juice
Reduce Your Weight
Have good night sleep
Control Your Blood Pressure
Enjoy Activities that Stimulate Your Mind (take classes)
Drink Green Tea
Eat more watermelon.
No smoking
Drink apple juice
Eat cinnamon
Socialize (friends)
Protect your vision
Take Mediterranean diet

Benefits of Strength Training

On 10/7/2011, I read this article from Mayo clinic, “Strength training: Get stronger, leaner, healthier” by Mayo Clinic staff. As always, I shared this article with my children, even though I am not sure if they ever pay any attention to it. I can never over-emphasize the importance of a good health, as I once said, “All things being equal, the person with a strong body and mind will win the race.”

The article states, “Strength training is an important part of an overall fitness program.” Here’s the brief list of benefits.

(1) Use it or lose it. Muscle mass naturally diminishes with age.
(2) It helps develop strong bones.
(3) Control your weight.
(4) Reduce your risk of injury.
(5) Boost your stamina. As you get stronger, you won’t fatigue as easily.
(6) Manage chronic conditions.
(7) Sharpen your focus.

Blood Pressure, Cholesterol, Stroke and Its Dire Consequence

Last week I learned a man of our generation was struck down by a stroke before he turned 50, which was followed by a few minor ones. He is now bedridden, tube-fed, and is told his days are numbered. His wife is going through chemotherapy for cancer disease. We were asked for donations to help them out.

The news left me feeling sad and low-spirited as the man who has worked hard all his life seems to be leaving before he even hits retirement age. Moreover, I searched the internet for information on stroke as if I had not learned anything about it at all.

I learned from Mayo clinic that “A stroke occurs when the blood supply to part of your brain is interrupted or severely reduced, depriving brain tissue of oxygen and food. Within minutes, brain cells begin to die. A stroke is a medical emergency. Prompt treatment is crucial. Early action can minimize brain damage and potential complications. The good news is that strokes can be treated and prevented, and many fewer Americans now die of stroke than was the case even 15 years ago. Better control of major stroke risk factors — high blood pressure, smoking and high cholesterol — is likely responsible for the decline.”

I try to learn a lesson from this incident and avoid stroke by eliminating the risk factors for it.

A Sense of Purpose Reduces Risk of Senile Dementia

While we know of many factors that contribute to the mental health of our senior fellows, a study further confirmed another key factor, call it spiritual power. This is the power of a strong sense of purpose in life. A study published in March 2010 in the Archives of General Psychiatry found that people with a greater sense of purpose in life ran low risk of Alzheimer’s disease than those without.

The study involved 951 people from the Rush Memory and Aging Project and was conducted by researchers at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. The researchers analyzed medical records and life outlook of participants. Their overall sense of purpose in life was measured by assessing their level of agreement with 10 statements derived from a psychological well-being scale, such as, “I have a sense of direction and purpose in life,” or “I feel good when I think of what I have done in the past and what I hope to do in the future.”

After an average of four years of follow-up, 16.3% (155) participants had developed Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers found participants with high scores on the life purpose test were 2.4 times less likely to develop Alzheimer’s than those with low score.

The study finding is helpful and significant because having a sense of purpose in life is something spiritual that we can work on, despite of mother nature’s relentless effect of aging on each one of us.

Brain Decay and Extreme Careers

On 1/17, I had the day off, happily. I read an article on Psychology Today, Feb 2011 issue. It talks about the potential brain degeneration of those who exclusively use one part of their brains.

A new study in Neuropsychologia found, “Science nerds and artsy type may be at risk of lopsided brain decay. One form of brain dementia appears to effect the brain region least used in a person’s career.”

The frontotemporal lobar degeneration (FTLD) is associated with uninhibited behavior and language deficits. It tends to affect brain asymmetrically. FTLD-afflicted patient often had extreme careers.

“They were composers, cartographers –professions that tended to have specific skills in one area.” e.g. math skills are focused in the left side of the brain, so those in number-heavy profession show degeneration first in the right hemisphere.

Exercise Good to Your Body and Brain

I read this article long ago on brain and exercise by Roni Caryn Rabin, out on 5/13/2008, “For a Sharp Brain, Stimulation.” I dug it out during a recent house cleaning drive. Here are some notes from this reading.

“… studies of older people who have maintained their mental acuity provide some clues. They tend to be socially connected, with strong ties to relatives, friends and community. They are often both physically healthy and physically active. And they tend to be engaged in stimulating or intellectually challenging activities.

“But some interventional studies that have introduced older adults to exercise regimens have reported remarkable results… Six months of exercise will buy you a 15 to 20 percent improvement in memory, decision-making ability and attention,” “It will also buy you increases in the volume of various brain regions in the prefrontal and temporal cortex, and more efficient neuronetworks that support the kind of cognition we examined.”

Regular physical activity may improve brain function, both by increasing blood flow to the brain and stimulating the production of hormones and nerve growth factors involved in neurogenesis. Animal studies have found that physically active animals have better memories and more cells in their hippocampus. Exercise also plays a role in countering diseases like Type 2 diabetes, which increases the risk of dementia. Cholesterol and hypertension, which affect vascular health, also need to be kept in check.”

By now, you should know the take-home message from this article.

Belly and Dementia — the Fatter You are, the More Stupid You will be in Old Age

Well, I could put it in a nice way, but that won’t change the fact. A study published in the Annals of Neurology in May 2010 found a link between the protruding belly in middle age and the decline of mental power. The study involved 73 males and females, carried out by folks at the Boston University School of Medicine.

They not only found an association of higher body mass index with reduced total brain volume and one at high risk of senior mental deterioration, but also the strong correlation among people with belly fat. They found, independent of total body weight, an association between belly fat and decreased brain volume. Specifically, individuals with higher amounts of belly fat in their 40s were more likely to exhibit signs of cognitive decline as they got older.

“We have all heard how a beer belly can be bad for our heart, but this study suggests carrying excess abdominal weight could also increase your risk of getting dementia… This is not really surprising as a large stomach is associated with high blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes — all major risk factors for dementia.”

Yes, when you pour your energy on jamming good food down your throat, you deprive your brain the energy to keep going. Hence, the bigger your belly gets, the stupid you become. So pathetically true.

“Hold on to the best parts of our youth as the years go by”

On 10/13/2010, I read this article on yahoo site, written by Jessica Ashley. The message is loud and clear — to improve your daily intellectual performance and reduce the risk for dementia in years to come, you need to get started right away and develop good brain habits now. Here are these good habits.

1. The key is learning something totally new. Acquiring new skills as we age will help keep us youthful. “Utilizing previously unused areas of the brain as one ages can help slow down, stop, and reverse some signs of brain aging,” e.g. learning a new language, taking music lessons to play a new instrument.

2. Work your body. Data strongly suggests that regular aerobic activity improves human brain power immediately and could protect us from major memory impairment in the long term. Even walking for 45 minutes a few times a week can make a difference.

3. Feed your body, but only until it is 80 percent full. Whether you want to recapture or hang on to your youthfulness, you’re going to have to pay more attention to the food and drink you put into your body. Eating 20% less at meals. Avoid meat and processed food, consume more vegetables.

4. De-stress, and soon. Stress-free is a must if you want to live a longer and healthy life.

5. Keep playing the classic games, just do them faster. Our intellectual skills change as we age, but our deductive reasoning and our base of knowledge improve. The changes and the challenge are that our attention, processing speed, short-term memory, and cognitive flexibility often slow. Regularly exercising mental muscles can help us stay healthier over time. Work on games that challenge our memory. Time yourself with the goal of getting faster each time.

6. Be social, but choose your friends wisely. Many studies have suggested that “being socially isolated has health risks on par with those of cigarette smoking.” It is equally important that you choose “the right tribe” to spend time with people. “…If you dine with people who eat healthy food, you’re more likely to eat healthy food, if the friends you spend most time with play a sport, you’re more likely to join them.”

7. Take control of your life by taking control of your clutter. That is, “the physical, emotional, and cognitive toll possessions can have on older people” To be sure, it is a mental, emotional and physical challenge to de-clutter ourselves from years of accumulation. However, “if we take control of the possessions we keep and validate what the stuff we discard meant about who we once were, we will be better prepared to move forward into the next chapter of our lives.”

I have shared these with my relatives in China and wait for great results.

Six Ways for a Healthy Brain

On 1/27/2011, I read an article by Sarah Baldauf, “6 Ways to Protect Yourself Against Alzheimer’s and Dementia.” I was strucken by its simplicity, which makes it nice and easy to remember for people of my mother age.

1. Physical activity
2. Weight control
3. Mental challenges
4. Social connections
5. Healthy diet
6. Chronic disease control

Neil Buckholtz, chief of the dementias of aging branch at the National Institute on Aging, notes that “high blood pressure in old age is a very strong risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s later on, but if you can keep the blood pressure down, that decreases your risk.” And a study published in the journal Dementia & Geriatric Cognitive Disorders found that people in their 40s who had mildly elevated cholesterol were at greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s later in life. A sizable body of evidence suggests that type 2 diabetes and heart disease affect the brain and perhaps the development or severity of Alzheimer’s.

Five Areas of Brain Exercise

I love reading about brain, especially about having a bright brain. On 2/22/2011, I read about brain exercise from internet. Both parents and children can improve their brain quality by engaging the following areas of brain exercise.

(1) Memory. Having a better memory can help you remember names, find locations, and recall important information more quickly and accurately. Scientists have even tied memory to general intelligence.

(2) Attention. Landmark studies have shown that attention training has a meaningful impact on your ability to perform well on tests, at sports, and in other visually demanding activities. Better attention can also improve your ability to filter out distraction, thus increasing your productivity at work and home. Kids with better attention in class always perform well academically.

(3) Speed. Think fast. Exercising your mental processing speed can help you think more clearly and quickly, improve reaction time, and increase alertness and awareness. Brain speed training can help you become sharper at work, school and throughout your life.

(4) Flexibility. Switch things up with flexible thinking. Flexibility training can make multitasking a breeze, help you articulate your thoughts better, and give you the discipline to resist temptation. Getting better at flexibility can help improve your precision, cognitive control, and even your creative thinking.

(5) Problem Solving. Better problem solving skills can help you make quick, accurate decisions, gain a better ability to make mental estimates, comparisons, and calculations, not to mention more efficient thinking overall. Problem solving represents a diverse category of cognitive skills and abilities. Brain training can help you exercise and improve these abilities.

Physically Active Teens and Old Age Brain

A study found an association between teenage active exercise and a reduced risk of old age dementia. The study was carried out by researchers from Sunnybrook Health Sciences Center in Canada, published on 6/30/2010 in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. They analyzed exercise habits of 9,344 women from four U.S. states during their teenage years, 30s, 50s, and twilight years.

They found that, independent of factors like education, marital status, diabetes, hypertension, weight, depression, and age, there remained a strong correlation between teen physical activity and reduced risk for cognitive impairment late in life.

Furthermore, they found women who began routine exercise in their 30s and 50s showed lower risk for cognitive impairment as they aged compared with those who were consistently inactive.

The take-home message is nicely given by Laura Middleton, the study’s lead author, “To minimize the risk of dementia, physical activity should be encouraged from early life. Not to be without hope, people who were inactive at teenage can reduce their risk of cognitive impairment by becoming active in later life.” It’s nice to know there is still hope for folks far older than teens.

Retrieval Practice Helps Retain Information Part II

A week later all four groups were given a short-answer test to assess their ability to recall facts and draw logical conclusions based on the facts.

Those who took the test retained about 50% more information than those using other study methods. Isn’t that amazing!

“I think that learning is all about retrieving, all about reconstructing our knowledge,” said the lead author, Jeffrey Karpicke, an assistant professor of psychology at Purdue University. “I think that we’re tapping into something fundamental about how the mind works when we talk about retrieval.”

Some explained that the students put up more effort and struggle for a test than they do for normal study. They engage in more active brain work during testing than the relaxing non-test environment. Their intense efforts might have helped them retain information more permanently. It makes sense when considering some students tend to drift away and less focus during normal study, but they have to fully concentrate during test. I would say the power of focus helps in the end.

A Kent State University psychology researcher believes testing gets people to come up with keyword clues, which bridge the gap between the familiar and new information. It strengthens ties between keywords and the newly-learned information.

While the researchers don’t have a definite answer as to why retrieval testing method is better than other ones in retaining information, the experiment does call our attention to one important function of testing, other than evaluating and giving grade reports.

Retrieval Practice Helps Retain Information Part I

On 1/20/2011, I read an interesting online report by Jeffrey Karpicke entitled “Retrieval Practice Produces More Learning than Elaborative Studying with Concept Mapping.” Here’s the abstract of the report.

“Educators rely heavily on learning activities that encourage elaborative studying, while activities that require students to practice retrieving and reconstructing knowledge are used less frequently.

“Here, we show that practicing retrieval produces greater gains in meaningful learning than elaborative studying with concept mapping. The advantage of retrieval practice generalized across texts identical to those commonly found in science education. … was observed with test questions that assessed comprehension and required students to make inferences. … occurred even when the criterial test involved creating concept maps. Our findings support the theory that retrieval practice enhances learning by retrieval-specific mechanisms rather than by elaborative study processes. Retrieval practice is an effective tool to promote conceptual learning about science.”

The research involved 200 college students in two experiments. In the first experiment, the students were divided into four groups. One did nothing more than read the text for five minutes. Another studied the passage in four consecutive five-minute sessions. A third group engaged in “concept mapping,” in which, with the passage in front of them, they arranged information from the passage into a kind of diagram, writing details and ideas in hand-drawn bubbles and linking the bubbles in an organized way.

The final group took a “retrieval practice” test. Without the passage in front of them, they wrote what they remembered in a free-form essay for 10 minutes. Then they reread the passage and took another retrieval practice test.
To be continued…

Brain Matters Part IV

Because brain matters, we should go extra miles to keep our brain healthy. Below are some of the author’s suggestions.
(a) make positive social connections
(b) healthy diet, high protein diet
(c) take daily vitamin and fish oil
(d) learn music
(e) exercise regularly, aerobic exercise
(f) dancing
(g) engage in positive thinking
(h) positive meditation
(i) get help in organizing, goal setting and time management

Your daily habits and routines are either hurting or helping your brain.

Throughout a person’s life, one should take these steps to a healthy brain:
(1) Protect your amazing but fragile brain
(2) Taking care of younger brains
(3) Boost blood flow — especially important to the brain. It brings all the needed nutrients to the brain.

Remember the saying “Whatever is good to your heart is also good to your brain.” Understand factors that limit blood flow. Improve blood flow is the fountain of youth.

(4) Increase your brain’s reserve. The more the brain reserves, the more one can handle stress.
(5) Maintain the brain hardware.

(6) Lastly and most importantly, your ability to control your life is directly tied to the health of your brain.

Brain Matters Part III

The book provides a brain system questionnaire. The more yes you have for the following questions, the more trouble you have with your brain, which means the more you need to work on your brain.

(1) Have trouble sustaining attention
(2) Lack attention to detail
(3) Easily distracted
(4) Tend to procrastinate
(5) Lack clear goals
(6) Are restless
(7) Have difficulty expressing empathy for others
(8) Blurt out answers before question has been completed, interrupt frequently
(9) Are impulsive, say or do things without thinking
(10) Need caffeine to focus
(11) Get struck on negative thoughts
(12) Are worried
(13) Have tendency toward compulsive/addictive behavior
(14) Hold grudges
(15) Become upset when things do not go your way
(16) Become upset when things are out of place
(17) Have tendency to be oppositional or argumentative
(18) Dislike change
(19) Become upset if things are not done in a certain way
(20) Have trouble seeing options in situations
(21) Feel sad easily
(22) Are often negative
(23) Often feel bored
(24) Feel dissatisfied
(25) Have low energy
(26) Experience decreased interest in things that are once fun and pleasure
(27) Experience feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, worthlessness or guilt
(28) Have crying spells
(29) Have chronic low self-esteem
(30) Experience social isolation
(31) Feel nervousness and anxiety
(32) Experience feelings of panic
(33) Have symptom of heightened muscle tension, headache…
(34) Tend to predict the worst will happen
(35) Avoid conflict
(36) Have excessive fear of being judged or scrutinized by others
(37) Have excessive motivation, trouble stopping working
(38) Lack confidence
(39) Always watch for something bad to happen
(40) Are prone to quick startles
(41) Have a short fuse
(42) Experience periods of heightened irritability
(43) Misinterpret comments as negative when they are not
(44) Experience frequent periods of deja vu (feeling of being somewhere you have never been before)
(45) Display sensitivity or mild paranoia
(46) Experience dark thoughts
(47) Undergo periods of forgetfulness or memory problems
(48) Have trouble finding the right word to say
(49) Have poor handwriting
(50) Have trouble maintaining an organized work area

Brain Matters Part II

The following problems are related to poorly-developed prefrontal cortex.
(1) short attention span
(2) lack clear goals or forward thinking
(3) impulsive
(4) disorganization
(5) procrastination
(6) poor judgment
(7) unable to give close attention to detail
(8) lack of insight
(9) cannot learn from mistakes
(10) easily distracted

According to the author, keeping your brain sharp and healthy is prerequisite to good behavior. Hence, we should avoid the following behavior that will cause havoc to your brain.
(a) excessive alcohol
(b) drug abuse
(c) negative thinking
(d) poor diet
(e) chronic stress
(f) lack of sleep
(g) lack of exercise
(h) excessive caffeine
(i) too much TV or violent video games
(j) smoking

Brain Matters Part I

I took my daughter to Barnes & Noble’s on 12/29/2010 when I had the week off to be with the children. While she was there, I took up a book called Magnificent Mind at Any Age: Natural Ways to Unlease Your Brain’s Maximum Potential by Daniel Amen. It is an interesting read with many picture of MRI images of brain.

The main theme of the book is mind (will power, self-discipline, ability to focus, high performance, concentration) and brain (physical one) are interdependent. Brain needs nutrients, exercise and proper thinking strategies to support a sound mind. Very often, failure results from a brain gone wrong.

“It all starts with your brain: how you think, how you feel, how you interact with others, and how well you succeed in realizing your goals and dreams. …The tough-love, kick-in-the-butt approach works for some people, but it leaves countless others feeling demoralized, hopeless and unworthy.”

Specifically, the prefrontal cortex (PFC) is the part of our brain that makes us most human with forethought, judgment, impulse, control, learning from our mistakes, and maturity. The PFC does not finish developing until mid-20s. Poorly-developed PFC is associated with ADD, anxiety, depression, addiction, and anger. People with well-developed PFC are thoughtful, creative, energetic, focused and effective.
To be continued…

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