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Building a Brawny Brain

A sobering thought I sometimes have:  In 1965, the year I was born (this is Mike writing here… Althea will occasionally insist she married a much older man, if seventeen months is much older), a white male’s life expectancy was about 67 years of age.  It gives pause to think that now, at age 48 and based on the expectations of 1965, the number of years I might expect to have left could be fewer than the number having passed since I graduated from college.  Of course, that was only an average even then and advances in medicine, technology, and all we’ve since learned about health have been continually “moving the chains” on how long, and how well, we can expect to live.  Personally, I hope to be enthusiastically learning new skills, acquiring new knowledge, and taking on new physical and mental challenges at age 67, and with many good years ahead of me to master them.

In order to do this, I know I’ll need to stay not just physically healthy but mentally sharp.  Science and medicine can certainly extend our physical lives but, unless we keep our brains active and strong, what good is increased longevity, really? 

As early as our late 20s most of us will naturally begin to lose about 1% of the volume of our hippocampus annually.  The hippocampus is critical to short and long term memory and many functions of learning.  Also, as in any organ in the body, with age the tissues making it up begin to change and break down causing the physical structure of the brain to undergo change and shrinkage that negatively impact memory, learning, and physical function of the body.  Through the late 20s and up to the early 40s, these physical changes generally have little, if any, noticeable impact.  By about age 45, according to a 2012 study by the BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal), cognitive decline becomes more measurable and signs such as memory failure and loss start to become evident.  Learning new skills can take longer – and is sometimes met with resistance – and new skill retention is more difficult.  Teaching old dogs new tricks becomes especially challenging as learning and holding onto them may be difficult, if not nearly impossible, in their minds.  Especially concerning are these cognitive declines seem to be happening even as lifespans are continually increasing, but with no corresponding shift in onset.  In other words, many people can expect to live in reasonably good physical health for years or decades past the onset of significantly diminished cognitive ability.  This should be a sobering thought for anyone who may find themselves in that boat. 

The good news is as science has learned a lot about extending longevity and physical health, it has also been learning how we can maintain brain health and function longer than we ever knew  was possible.  The trick is that the onus really falls on us to take the initiative necessary to keep our minds healthy and vital.  The advantage of taking those steps are how they might improve our personal and professional lives long-term, and offset some of the negative impacts that certain of us in law enforcement might suffer.

As unique and filled with potential for mental stimulation each day as a cop might be the reality of the job is such that, over time, most days begin to look a lot like countless others before it and predictive of many more to come.  After a few years most calls feel routine and investigations rote.  On one hand, this generally means you are seasoned, good at your job, and efficient.  Conversely, the risk of becoming bored, stagnant, or cynical increases and, without frequent mental challenges either at work or away, leaves your brain vulnerable to intellectual atrophy in the short-term and real atrophy over time.

For many years it was accepted that brain development and growth was concentrated in the young, that the human brain experienced the rapid neural development of existing cells through childhood and into the early adult years before slowing and then beginning to eventually and irrevocably reverse.  Of course, more seasoned adults could still learn skills and imprint knowledge but scientists also believed it to be harder with increasing age, and that decline in the physical brain and corresponding cognitive function was inevitable and the growth of brain mass and new neural development the lost province of youth.  Now we know better.  Brains can continue to grow and develop well into (even late) adulthood and remain cognitively flexible with certain affirmative actions. 

So, much as physical exercise and staying active can slow or counter the toll of time on the body, there are activities you can and should adopt and maintain throughout life to keep your brain supple.  Some of these are:

Choose healthy foods

Eating healthy can be a daunting task, with time challenges and such an array of unhealthy but easy choices in front of us.  It’s also particularly difficult for cops who too often live on fast and processed foods.  But with a little effort and an eye toward “eating for the long haul” it can be done.  What we eat should include not just healthy, low-fat, well-balanced choices to keep our bodies fueled and strong but also brain foods.

Incorporate Omega-3 fatty acids into your diet by eating more fish; salmon, herring, sardines, and tuna are all good choices.  Nuts and seeds also can be good sources of Omega-3’s and other vitamins, and eggs are an excellent source of good cholesterol.  Antioxidants found in blueberries, broccoli, avocado, pomegranate (either the seeds or in juice form), fresh brewed tea, and dark chocolate, among other choices; all offer powerful protection against oxidative stress that can harm brain tissue.  And include frequent portions of whole grains and legumes to help round out your diet. 

Engage your brain

Strengthen and build your brain by not only fueling it but flexing it.  Take on new hobbies, seek new experiences, learn new skills, and become an active and ongoing learner.  Avoid routine!  Routine, whether at work or home, alone or in relationships, is comfortable and safe-feeling but does little to challenge us and encourages stagnation.  Activities that force the mind to engage in new or unfamiliar ways stimulate the formation of new neural pathways and promote more limber thinking.

Stepping far out of your comfort zone doesn’t feel as safe as routine does.  Learning new games, sports, or information can be difficult.  Making new acquaintances and socializing with people beyond your normal social circle may trigger defensive walls to engage.  Do all these things anyway!  Constantly expanding your knowledge, skill, and social bases keep the mind not only healthy but young.

Avoid excessive stress

Having a little stress in life is actually good.  Having too much stress can cause us serious and real damage physically, emotionally, and mentally.  Learning and using stress management skills are something we all talk about but too few actually do. 

Learning to be in the moment through meditation and mindfulness are important stress managers that allow us, despite very real pressures and worries we need to contend with, to step back and allow ourselves to regroup and refuel.  They help us learn how to not “sweat the small stuff” and gain perspective on the large. 

Hit the gym!  Or the running trail… or yoga studio… or all these and more

If reincarnation just happens to be real, and you happen to come back as a pet mouse (not one of those unfortunate non-pet mice destined to be some pet python’s entrée, because that would really suck – and just what did you do in your previous life to earn that Karmic payback, anyway?), you should demand one of those cool running wheels for your cage.  Pet mice with running wheels happen to be the smartest mice.  Really! I’m serious about this and I have science to back me up.

A team at the University of Illinois, led by psychology professor Justin Rhodes, conducted several months’ long research on four groups of mice to determine the effects of exercise (specifically running wheels) on cognitive development.

One group lived in a world of sensual and gustatory plenty, dining on nuts, fruits and cheeses, their food occasionally dusted with cinnamon, all of it washed down with variously flavored waters. Their “beds” were colorful plastic igloos occupying one corner of the cage. Neon-hued balls, plastic tunnels, nibble-able blocks, mirrors and seesaws filled other parts of the cage. Group 2 had access to all of these pleasures, plus they had small disc-shaped running wheels in their cages. A third group’s cages held no embellishments, and they received standard, dull kibble. And the fourth group’s homes contained the running wheels but no other toys or treats.     - From The New York Times Magazine, Reynolds, Gretchen, 4/18/2012

After putting the mice through cognitive tests before and after the experiment and comparatively studying their brain tissue, Rhodes and his team discovered that, “Only one thing had mattered and that’s whether they had a running wheel.”  No matter the number of toys, quality of food, or luxuriousness of their living arrangements, access to exercise was the one factor Rhodes and Company discovered to be key to the cognitive development of the mice.

It seems from this and other similar studies that exercise has the effect of slowing, and even reversing, the brain’s age-related physical decline by stimulating neurogenesis, particularly within the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex.  Not only that, but exercise seems to cause neurons created through other learning tasks – which normally would serve to draw on and replicate learned skills only when tasked with repeating the skill – to become cognitively adaptive.  Exercise grows and stretches not just our muscles but our minds. 

…research suggests that exercise prompts increases in something called brain-derived neurotropic factor, or B.D.N.F., a substance that strengthens cells and axons, fortifies the connections among neurons and sparks neurogenesis. Scientists can’t directly study similar effects in human brains, but they have found that after workouts, most people display higher B.D.N.F. levels in their bloodstreams.     - From The New York Times Magazine, Reynolds, Gretchen, 4/18/2012

Commit to staying mentally in-shape for life

Maintaining good physical conditioning can be challenging and to do it right really requires a lifetime commitment.  But most of us know it’s worth it.  Staying mentally in shape can be just as daunting, but the good news is just how closely the two are related!

There are no guarantees in life.  We can do everything right for decades and fall victim to accident, or be struck down by a hidden genetic or organic time bomb.  Not everything is in our power.  But wouldn’t you want, as much as is in your power, to live well for as long as possible?  We do, and we hope you do too. 

Be safe & Have fun!  And also stay healthy.