Remember your grandmother, or that next door neighbor,who started every day with the crossword puzzle in the newspaper? They may havebeen on to more than they knew.
Many older people suffer from memory-loss problems.You’ve probably heard the joke about CRS disease: “Can’t Remember Shit.” There’sa biological basis for that joke. We grow brain cells up through puberty. Afterthat we start losing brain cells until we die. It’s a slow process that’sestimated to deplete us of more than a million brain cells over time.
Stress can make matters worse.Researchers have shown that an area of the brain called the hippocampus wasreduced by as much as 25 percent as a result of long-term stress, especially inPTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) patients. Since the hippocampus isinvolved in long-term and conscious memory processes, stress can greatlyaggravate the memory problems associated with aging and the loss of braincells.
Fortunately, there is a process that counteracts theloss of brain cells. Brain cells are connected by neural dendrites: branchedprotoplasmic extensions of nerve cells that conduct impulses from adjacentcells inward toward the cell body. Nerves cells are connected by manydendrites, perhaps an unlimited number, and researchers have shown that usingour minds actually increases the number of dendrites. While the number of cellsmay decline with age, the connections between the cells can increase.
This was once only a hypothesis,but recent advances in electrophysiological measurements usingvoltage-sensitive dyes have allowed researchers to observe the spread ofelectrical signals in a dendritic tree at all points simultaneously. They’vefound that the mental processes of thinking and imaging, of solving problemsand dreaming dreams, look like lightning storms in our brain. Lights areliterally flashing on and off in an electrochemical display no less amazing andbeautiful than the aurora borealis.
All this leads to a simpleconclusion: use your mind or lose your mind. There’s no apparent way to stopthe loss of brain cells, but you can slow the process down by minimizingstress. And you can offset the process altogether by increasing the connectionsbetween the cells, the number of dendrites, through mental activity. Thosecrossword puzzles served at least two functions: stress relief and mentalexercise. No electronic decoders or calculators allowed! Just pure, mentalenergy.
This has become a real problem inthe evolution of high-tech, consumer societies. People use their minds less andless all the time. Television, movies, and video games tend to lull the mindinto a stupor rather than to wake it up and stretch it to grow more dendrites.Education has become a process of learning how to use the technology ratherthan of learning how to use our minds. Creative, freestanding thought andimagination are rare commodities that we would do well to recover and practiceon a regular basis.
Try this simple exercise: closeyour eyes, practice deep breathing (in through the nose, out through themouth), and bring different vivid images to mind. A red rose. An alpine meadow.A burning house. A birthday cake with 45 candles. The aroma of fresh bakedbread. There’s no end to the sights, sounds, and smells you can conjure up. Andevery time you do, you’re building those age-fighting dendrites.
Or again, the next time you haveto add some numbers don’t automatically reach for the calculator. Use yourmind. Eventually, as your memory and mental flexibility improve, you’ll be gladyou did.
May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.
Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC