Just as with the physical area of focus, we also need our magnificent brains and the cognitive power they bring to engage and navigate our world. Several decades ago, we believed that the brain, once it matured around twenty-five years old, would only decline, hardly a scenario that allowed for resilience and a healthy longevity.
Fortunately, we have debunked the theory of decline only. We’ve learned that the brain has a lifelong ability to rewire itself in response to injury, sickness, or the desire to stimulate our cognitive abilities. This ability is called neuroplasticity, and it is the ability to grow new neuro-pathways…basically grow brain tissue…and make new connections, increasing cognitive ability.
What do we do need to do to get neuroplasticity working for us? It’s simple. We first need to ensure our brain gets the nutrients and oxygen it needs. We do this with a good diet and being physically active. Then, we should not only use the capability we have but also learn new things. However small or large, these new skills will come from new connections we are making in our brain.
So, we are the architect of our own brain. We need not be pessimistic about our brains. This is wonderfully optimistic, for we can influence our memory, cognitive ability and even our risk of dementia. There is something we can do. In fact, in a long-term study of nuns in the Midwest, we documented that a lifestyle of being physically active, eating well, and learning new things, markedly reduced the likelihood of having the symptoms of dementia.
An additional requirement to increase memory and overall cognitive ability and reduce the risk of dementia is adequate sleep. In our world, where productivity is the most important gauge in our lives, sleep can be considered a luxury or even a questionable necessity. Such a view of sleep is grossly incorrect. Sleep allows the brain to recover from the day’s metabolic and cognitive processes and the considerable stress most of us encounter daily. Sleep is a non-negotiable requirement for our intellectual vitality.