Tuesday, 29 December 2009

The brain is like a muscle – use it or lose it

Some years ago on a trip to India I shared a room with a doctor at a Christian Medical Conference in New Delhi where we were both speaking. He was a travelling evangelist and Bible teacher from Kerala who had put many long train trips to good use by memorising Scripture and could tell you what was in every chapter of every book in the Bible. A while later at a UCCF conference at Hothorpe Hall I watched someone else recite the entire book of Acts ‘word perfect’ whilst acting it out.

Such feats of memory are rare in our literary culture where people rely far more on books or internet search engines than memory to recall facts. But in oral cultures it is not uncommon at all to find people who can recite vast tracts of information from memory.

If like me you are frustrated by your apparent loss of memory with advancing years then you will be heartened by the growing volume of research showing that fogged memory and slowed wit are not inevitable consequences of getting old. Rather, there are steps people can take to protect their brains.

A UCLA research study published in the June 2006 issue of the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry found that people can improve cognitive function and brain efficiency through simple lifestyle changes such as incorporating memory exercises, healthy eating, physical fitness and stress reduction into their daily lives.

The International Longevity Center released in 2001 a report which includes (in pages 14–16) recommendations for keeping the mind in good functionality until advanced age. Some of these are to stay intellectually active through learning, training or reading, to keep physically active so to promote blood circulation to the brain, to socialize, to reduce stress, to keep sleep time regular, to avoid depression or emotional instability and to observe good nutrition.

There is also some interesting recent work from Dr Amir Soas of Case Western Reserve University Medical School in Cleveland. ‘Read, read, read,’ Soas says. Do crossword puzzles. Pull out the chessboard or Scrabble. Learn a foreign language or a new hobby. Anything that stimulates the brain to think.’ He also advises cutting back on TV. ‘When you watch television, your brain goes into neutral.’ Case Western now plans to study whether people who contract Alzheimer’s watched more TV throughout life than healthy seniors.

I was interested to see a Newsweek article just this month reporting on further new research showing how the use of mental exercises had increased both intellectual performance and IQ in children.

I am encouraged by all this that my resignation to increasing failing memory with advancing years need not become a self-fulfilling prophecy and am setting my mind specifically to using my memory more proactively this year.

I’m starting by doing some well-overdue learning of the content, chapter by chapter, of some Bible books. And it seems to be working.

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