Low-cost and no-cost suggestions for improving brainpower

Growing More Brain on a Budget

by Joanne Guidoccio


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"You're sharp...sharper than before."

I was surprised and pleased by the compliment. My good friend, Magda, was visiting and made this comment after reading some of my articles and watching me move around the condo.

I have been retired for over three years, and while the pace of my life has slowed down considerably, I have made a concerted effort to keep my brain active. As the daughter of parents with Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, I am always on the lookout for new ways of improving brainpower.

But I am not prepared to fork out enormous sums of money for supplements and other products that make dubious claims. Instead, I read columns and books written by health experts such as Daniel Amen, Tony Buzan, David Snowdon, Andrew Weil, Deepak Chopra, and Mehmet Oz and take careful note of any low-cost and no-cost suggestions for improving brainpower.

Eat Less and Exercise More

The experts agree that obesity is bad for the brain and doubles the risk for Alzheimer's disease. Scientists have found that calorie-restricted animals nearly always stay active and healthy until the end of their lives.

Since retiring, I have watched my caloric intake very carefully, and I exercise 200 to 220 minutes a week. I use the treadmill five to six times a week, lift weights twice a week, and practice yoga. I lost over ten pounds and have kept the weight off.

Cross-Read

I have always been an avid reader, but this past year, I started cross-reading. I joined a book club and discovered books that I would never have picked up on my own. At first, I found it challenging to read some of the selections, but I persisted and became more open to different points of view. I enjoyed reading many of the translations based in the Middle East and Asia and started reading more about these countries.

I also started attending more book readings and lectures. Often, I do not recognize or know the authors and presenters, but I look forward to adding their books to my reading list.

Write

I paid close attention to the findings of the Nun Study, which were released in 2001. Epidemiologist David Snowdon conducted a longitudinal study of aging, which followed 678 members of the School Sisters of Notre Dame. These women continued to teach and serve, retaining their mental faculties well into their eighties and nineties. The scientists discovered that the nuns who had better language abilities early in life were less likely to exhibit the symptoms of mild dementia or full-blown Alzheimer's.

Since retiring, I spend anywhere from two to five hours a day writing articles, book reviews, short stories, and blog entries. I have also completed a 77,000 word urban fantasy novel.

Increase Mental Exercise

Tony Buzan, author of The Mind Map Book, believes that our memories can improve if we simply take the time to utilize and improve our brains. He suggests that we take courses, learn a new language, and change our daily routines.

Since retiring, I have taken a number of creative writing courses and joined Toastmasters. While the process of writing, memorizing and presenting a speech has been challenging, I am pleased with my improved communication skills and increased confidence. I also enjoy completing the crossword puzzle in the daily newspaper. At first, I struggled, but after investing in a crossword dictionary, I increased my speed and improved my vocabulary.

It is so easy to take the path of least resistance by sleeping in each day, watching more television, and limiting social contacts. When this happens, the brain can start to lose its ability to discern and assimilate new information. To keep our brains properly stimulated, it is important to keep changing our environments.

This past winter, my television broke down and the repairman took five weeks to fix it. During that time, I found myself meeting more friends for dinner, driving further distances to lectures, and ensuring that I had a different activity each evening. After the television was fixed, I found my viewing time had decreased considerably.

In his book, Change Your Brain, Change Your Body, Dr. Daniel Amen provides additional suggestions on how to set more change in motion. I found the following tips useful:

  • Buy an unfamiliar food like daikon, quinoa, or bresaola. Then, find a recipe and make a meal using it.
  • Rearrange the furniture in one room of your home. I ended up redecorating my entire condo.
  • When renting or borrowing a DVD, browse through a section you normally pass. For example, check out science fiction, foreign films, and documentaries.
  • Reconnect with a friend you haven't seen in awhile.
  • Think back to a favourite hangout or activity from your high school or university days. Revisit the place or activity and watch your mindset change.

For 31 years, Joanne Guidoccio taught mathematics, computer science, business and career education courses in secondary schools throughout Ontario. Her articles, book reviews, and short stories have been published in newspapers, magazines, and online. She has bachelor's degrees in mathematics and education and a Career Development Practitioner diploma. See more of her work at manywindingroads.blogspot.com.

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