It's one thing to lose your keys, your phone, a wallet filled with credit cards. It's wildly upsetting, but it's all stuff you can get back. But losing your mind? Losing your memory? Your thoughts, in mid-stride, so you have to double back and ask yourself where was I going with that story about the guy I met in yoga class who has the apricot-colored poodle?
It happens to everyone -- kids forget stuff, too -- but I don't like it. And one reason is that I know the mind is like a muscle. Use it or lose it. Back in the old days -- maybe 40 years ago -- neuroscientists thought the brain was fixed, not fluid, and the older you got, the more senile you became.
Not true! (They were also wrong about eating fat making you fat, but I'll save that for another time.) Your brain has more plasticity than a can of Play-Doh. With luck, and grace, and effort, you can keep it juiced and joyful and learning new things right till the end.
It's not only possible but also fun! Here are two brain boosters to help you keep your mind active, your memories sharp and your synapses sparking joy:
*Be Your Own Fred Astaire
It's well established that your brain thrives on exercise. Physical activity -- from cleaning house to climbing walls -- increases blood flow to the brain. And within the brain, it stimulates the release of chemicals that make us think better, feel better and even be better at certain tasks, like remembering the point of that story about the guy in yoga class with the apricot-colored poodle.
While all exercise is good for the brain, new research published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience recently set my toes a-tapping. Dancing, it turns out, is one of the best exercises you can do for the aging brain.
Repetitive endurance training (such as cycling and walking) also ranks high when it comes to an anti-aging effect on your hippocampus -- the region that controls memory, learning and balance -- but dancing beats the competition. And here's the twist: It works best if you're constantly changing your dance routines and genres. The seniors who showed the biggest boost to their brains were switching between jazz, square, Latin American and line dancing.
"Steps, arm patterns, formations, speed and rhythms were changing every second week to keep them in a constant learning process," said Dr. Kathryn Rehfield, the lead author in the study. "The most challenging aspect for them was to recall the routines under the pressure of time and without any cues from the instructor."
Yes! That level of challenge could make me cry, but that's what the brain likes. And why it wants you to play strategy games such as chess, do word puzzles, read books or take classes that make you think, think, think.
*Combine Mental and Physical Exercise
Another way to strengthen brainpower is to do some brain exercises while the body is in motion. Excuse me?
"Any movement is good during mental tasks," writes Lawrence Biscontini, an advisory board member for the International Council on Active Aging, in IDEA Fitness Journal. "It does not have to be intense."
So while doing sudoku, sitting still, is good for you, your brain's neuroplasticity -- its remarkable ability to change and adapt -- is even more stimulated when you pair it with simple moves such as seated marching or alternating heel raises.
Biscontini has come up with a series of brain-training exercises, including this one: "While your body is in motion, say your favorite color aloud. Spell it forward then backward. How many letters does the word have? Does your telephone number contain that number? If it does, then say the section of your phone number that contains that number. Repeat the numerical answer backwards. If not, then repeat a section of your phone number forward and then backward."
If you like the challenge of that, you'll love his website. "Coupling brain games with appropriate movements," says Biscontini, "is one of the waves of the future for helping to change not that we age but how we age."
Yes! And that makes all the difference. If you forget why, start tapping your toes and go back to paragraph five.
*Energy Express-O! Poetry in Motion
"The brain is a wonderful organ. It starts working the moment you get up in the morning and does not stop until you get to the office." -- Robert Frost
Marilynn Preston's weekly column, "Energy Express," can be found at creators.com.