Integrated Brain Fitness for December

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Give yourself a gold star for each of these brain-healthy activities you do this month.

Share Your Brain: ‘Tis the Season for Giving
Several studies suggest that giving your time, effort, and money to others can be a boon for brain health. For instance, one large study in Detroit found that people who gave help to others (such as childcare, transportation, or housework) were less affected by stress than those who didn’t1. A pilot study from Johns Hopkins showed that older adults who volunteered (in this case, mentoring youth through Experience Corps) helped people maintain and even improve brain health2. And other studies have shown that charitable giving lights up the reward system in the brain—helping you feel as good as if you received the money instead of giving it3.

Whether you already give regularly and or are looking to start, here are four ideas for giving this month.

  • Idea 1: Organize a volunteer party or donation drive for a cause that matters to you and your community. Invite people you know to participate—by donating money or goods, attending an event, contributing unique skills, or helping out in some other way. For example, if you live in a cold part of the U.S., you might host a coat drive through OneWarmCoat.org.
  • Idea 2: Do you know someone who is going through a hard time and could use a little help right now? Reach out and lend them support, whether that means making them a meal, helping them with their kids, starting a donation campaign for them (through GoFundMe or a similar site), or whatever else might be useful. 
  • Idea 3: Volunteer for the holidays. Work at a local food bank, organize presents for a gift-giving campaign…whatever sounds meaningful to you.
  • Idea 4: Decide how you’re going to include giving or volunteering as a regular part of your life in 2016. If you have special skills—in computers, construction, languages, or any other field—they may be especially valuable for organizations looking for help. Depending on where you live, there may be websites that can help you find volunteer opportunities (such as AllforGood.org, VolunteerMatch.org, or CatchAFire.org for U.S. cities).

If you already give yourself, your time, or your money on a regular basis, then you’re a step ahead!

Is All Giving Good?

The science isn’t totally in, but it seems like the intention of the giver matters. If the volunteer or giver has negative feelings about it (if, for instance, they don’t really want to volunteer but are only doing so to look good on a resume, or if they don’t want to help a family member but feel pressure to do so), it’s less likely to bring healthy benefits. When people give freely, selflessly, and with a positive outlook is when it’s most likely to be useful for emotional and cognitive health.

1 Poulin M et al. Giving to Others and the Association Between Stress and Mortality. American Journal of Public Health. 2013 Sep;103(9):1649-1655.

2 Carlson MC et al. Evidence for Neurocognitive Plasticity in At-Risk Older Adults: The Experience Corps Program. Journal of Gerontology A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2009; 64(12):1275-1282.

3 One example is Moll J et al. Human fronto-mesolimbic networks guide decisions about charitable donation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2006 Oct 17;103(42):15623-8.

Nourish Your Brain: Bring on the Green, Leafy Vegetables

Spinach and kale and chard…oh my! Green, leafy vegetables of every type are great for the brain. In one study, Dr. Martha Clare Morris found that people who ate 1-2 servings of green leafy vegetables per day were 11 years younger—cognitively speaking—than those who consumed none1. That’s one of the reasons she included leafy greens as one of the ten essential foods in the MIND diet, with a recommendation of at least six servings per week. If you can’t quite make it to six, even two servings a week showed some benefit!

What Is the MIND Diet?

The MIND diet was developed by Rush University nutritional epidemiologist Martha Clare Morris, ScD, and colleagues. A recent study showed the MIND diet lowered risk of Alzheimer’s and improved cognitive aging, even if only followed moderately well. It’s often described as a hybrid of two other diets: the Mediterranean diet and the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet, but with a special focus on brain health and function. It includes 10 things you should eat (from nuts to berries to poultry) and 5 you should limit (such as red meat and cheese). Leafy greens are an unusual inclusion because they are not a major component of either the Mediterranean or the DASH diets—but the evidence for a brain benefit made them too important to exclude.

1Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB). "Eating green leafy vegetables keeps mental abilities sharp." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 30 March 2015. 

Energize Your Brain: Waltzing in a Winter Wonderland
Studies show that dancing reduces stress and improves mood—but also that it can improve cognitive function and reduce risk of dementia. One study compared dancing to biing, swimming, reading, doing crosswords, and playing golf, and found that of those activities, dancing was by far the best for the brain. Here are some ways you might incorporate dancing into your December.

  • Step 1: Read this article from Stanford about how to make dancing as “intelligent” as possible. It will help you understand what types of dancing are best, and what you need to do to get the most brain benefits from dancing.
  • Step 2: Sign up for a dance class, ideally one that’s partner-based. It can be a more advanced class for a type of dancing you already know, or a beginner’s class of a dance that’s new to you. Go to class and try your hardest while you’re there to learn the moves and respond to your partner’s moves.
  • Step 3: Going to or hosting any holiday parties? See if you can get the room dancing!
  • Step 4: Dance at home! Get on YouTube or another video website and follow along with dancing tutorials, like this one for basic tango, this one for waltz, or this one for moonwalking. Keep practicing until you master a video, then move on to a new one.

Why is dancing good for the brain?

Here’s a brief description of why dancing is especially good for the brain from Dr. Michael Merzenich: “Complex dances require you use multiple senses at the same time—sight, sound, and motion—coordinating your movements in time with the music and your partner’s steps, all while remembering a routine. That kind of multimodal activity gives your brain a great workout, in addition to the aerobic benefits of exercise.”
Recharge Your Brain: Check Your Temperature
One of the important factors in getting a good night’s sleep is temperature. A mild drop in temperature induces sleep, so it’s good to go to bed in a cool, dark environment. But not too cool—a room that is uncomfortably cold is as likely to disrupt sleep as a room that is uncomfortably hot. If you have trouble falling or staying asleep, try playing with the thermostat this month to find your personal sweet spot. Here are a few ideas:
  • Idea 1: Although ideal room temperature isn’t the same for everyone, for most people it is somewhere between 60 and 72 degrees. Try setting your thermostat to 65 degrees. See how your night goes. If you didn’t sleep well, adjust it up or down a few degrees each night until you have a good night of sleep. Keep it at that temperature for a few days to see if that temperature is consistently better.
  • Idea 2: Experiment with your pillows, blankets, and clothing…they contribute to your body temperature. For instance, pillows that conform too much to your head (such as memory foam pillows) may make you too hot. Polyester pajamas (rather than cotton, or no pajamas) might, too, especially if you tend to get hot flashes at night.
  • Idea 3: If getting room temperature up (or down) to your preferred sleep temperature is too expensive, look into products that can help. For instance, you might try sheets that are designed to absorb moisture and heat, add a cooling pad to your mattress or pillow, or buy an electric blanket or bed fan. (These can also be useful if you are sleeping with someone who prefers a different temperature to you.)
  • Idea 4: Try new activities and habits to get your body temperature right. For instance, if you typically do something strenuous that heats you up before bed, see if doing it earlier in the day helps you fall asleep more easily. Perhaps try taking a hot shower before entering a cool bedroom to bring on the drop in body temperature that inspires sleepiness. Or see if lying on your side with less contact with the mattress helps you stay cooler. 

What does sleep do for my brain?

One of the best things you can do for your brain is to make sure you get enough good-quality sleep—probably at least seven hours a night. (People who think they are doing well on much less than seven hours a night often perform worse on cognitive tests.) Sleeping helps your brain process information, consolidate memories, and clear out toxins. Chronic sleep deprivation can actually injure neurons and prevent the brain from self-repair.
Sharpen Your Brain: Use BrainHQ
Do you ever stop your brain training because your hand is tired of using the mouse? Don’t let a tired hand cut your training short. For several exercises—especially the ones that have two possible answers (like Fine Tuning, Sound Sweeps, Visual Sweeps, and Mixed Signals) you can use the arrow keys on the keyboard instead.