Monday, July 13, 2009

Don't Worry, That's Normal

Sometimes I worry about getting Alzheimer’s. I’m sure a lot of people do. I’m not a dedicated worrier, but given the genetic tendencies for this particular disease, I could claim some cause for worry. My maternal grandmother was lost in the last 10 years of her life, if not more, in the twisted world of dementia. Following in those footsteps, my mother began to show signs of dementia by her early sixties, and has continued to step further and further away from the here and now for the last decade. At some point, I will want to write more about my experiences with my mother, and there is plenty to write about, but I’m not up to that at the moment, so let’s just say we’ll do that later.
Right now, let’s consider behaviors that we don’t have to worry about – those things that cause frustration, but aught not cause undue paranoia. The behaviors to which I refer fall into categories such as “brain farts” or “senior moments”, defined on also as a “spontaneous stupid” (I love Now then, I am drawn to this subject by a recent article in More, a magazine for, yes that’s me, 40+ women. The June issue, featuring the achingly beautiful Mary-Louise Parker on the cover, has an article called “New Rules for Saving Your Memory”, written by Judy Jones, based on an interview with John Medina, PhD, director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University. Find out more about More magazine at
So, that article starts out with the bad news, urgh, that our brains are basically wired to reach peak capacity at about age 19. Wonderful. According to Dr. Medina, our caveman brains are designed to last long enough for us to reproduce, and then it’s all downhill from there, with 85,000 neurons jumping ship every day. OK, so where is the hopeful part? Well, to begin with, the article explains that we have to understand a bit about how the brain processes information. First, information comes in from our senses; then the brain sorts it and stores it; next the information is retrieved, as we need it; and lastly, the most important step according to Dr. Medina, the brain dumps unnecessary information. This last part is so important because the forgetting process creates the space we need to take in new information. As we go through our days, we encounter an endless stream of visual, auditory, and tactile stimuli, just to touch on the tip of the iceberg. All the while, our brains sort out the keepers from the useless, and dump the trash as we go. And that, apparently, is where middle-aged brains start to falter. As we age, our brains have trouble blocking out the static of useless information, and in the deluge, our filters get clogged, resulting in, you guessed it…….a brain fart, a senior moment, a spontaneous stupid of just where did I put my keys, or why did I come in this room.
Now, consider how much information there is to process in the average 30 minutes of TV. Heck, how about just considering 30 seconds? I did an exercise with the college students in my Intro to Theatre class last fall, in order to demonstrate the difference between recorded media and live performance. I showed a 30 second commercial, asking the class to tally up how many different images their brains were offered in one short TV ad. The counts came in close to 30 - almost one different image per second, in one short and very simple commercial, not even counting music, voices, and sound affects. Just think about your day, and all the information your brain has to process. No wonder our brains can go on overload.
I feel better knowing that the occasional brain fart is normal, and not a sign of impending doom. And if sorting static is what puts my brain over the edge, I’m happy to look for ways to simplify my world. But this leads to the question, what can we do to keep our brains healthy over the long run? Dr. Medina has some answers there for us as well. First of all, and most importantly, exercise, be active, and stay active. An active lifestyle improves your odds of being healthy across the board, physically, emotionally, and in terms of mental acuity. Even if you’ve been an armchair pilot for years, getting started with some form of aerobic exercise, and sticking with it, will boost your brainpower over the long run.
The other advice Dr. Medina has for us to improve the shape of our aging brains is to learn tactics to limit the ill affects of stress in our lives. Apparently, situations that lead to feelings of frustration and powerlessness can actually damage the brain. It’s important to learn to take steps so that, even when experiencing something negative, you can still feel like you have some control. The tactics suggested by Dr. Medina have mostly to do with managing interpersonal stress, like finding a way to talk out a tough issue with a co-worker or loved one. But often, the big stressors in our lives are things that are beyond our control. What is within our control is how we choose to view these circumstances, and doing things to help ourselves stay in healthy balance as much as we can. So, do the thing that helps you to “chillax”, as my teenage daughter would say. Even when things really suck (and I know about when things really suck), you are in control of how you view and address your circumstances. So take some deep breaths, and make some changes that will help keep your brain cells healthy and thriving for years to come.
Before I tie things up here, I will take a moment to mention that one of the best tools for promoting balance and harmony is meditation. If you are new to meditation, and don’t know how to get started, try Seven Steps to Positive Living, a set of guided meditations that are short and accessible, and appropriate to both secular and spiritual approaches to meditation. Already down with meditation? OK, try Seven Steps as a refreshing, less than 10-minute way to enhance your current path. Go to to listen to samples, and see if you’d like to give it a try. All right, enough with the shameless self-promotion.
Let’s just all find a way to chillax!

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