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Marie Pasinski, M.D.

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Adults, How Will You Keep Your Brain Fit This School Year?

Posted: 09/08/11 09:40 AM ET

As the summer winds down, it's back to school time, that time of year when we take our children shopping for everything they will need for a successful school year. Crisp new binders, snappy pencils with pristine erasers, the latest fashions, backpacks and the latest computer technology. But in the midst of all the preparation, we often don't think about outfitting the most important thing of all for their success: their brain.

And for most parents, this time of year is hectic -- we are so focused on our children's academic success that we neglect to even consider what we can do to ensure that our brain is running at its best, which will not only allow us to perform better in our career but in every sphere of our lives, including parenting.

This year, I'm hoping you will consider what you can do for your brain this semester and begin to nurture your own mind, along with your children's. It begins by taking stock and investing in your brain's environment. My youngest recently returned to college, and I reflect on the preparation and energy expended to ensure his environment is optimally conducive to learning. His computer is running smoothly, loaded with all the essential software for his courses, and his room is furnished with all the special touches to keep him extra comfy and induce restorative slumbers. But most importantly, his brain will be immersed in a constant well-spring of new ideas, new concepts, new people and new places as he explores campus life.

Like other parents, all these preparations have consumed my mental attention and energy. In the process, I realize my own brain's needs have been neglected. As we transition from vacation mode to back-to-school and work mode, this is the time to think about our own brain development with the same love and attention that we give to our children. While we probably have all the creature comforts we need in our home to allow for relaxation and enjoyment, what we often neglect is our brain's need for stimulating experiences and mental challenge.

At birth, we begin to build our neural networks, a process fueled by education and mental stimulation. Although our brain is able to create new neurons and forge brand new neural networks throughout our lives, this remarkable ability frequently lays dormant once we finish school. Too often as we age, the construction of new neural pathways is put on hold as the demand for new neural circuits dwindles. And yet a growing body of research shows that lifelong learning lowers our risk of Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia.

So why not jumpstart your brain this fall by making the commitment to learn something new every week? It could be as simple as attending a lecture on a topic that interests you, playing a new game or making a new friend. The goal is to open yourself up to new ideas and experiences on a regular basis, such that it becomes a habit. I would encourage you to keep track of your progress in a weekly journal. This will not only reinforce what you have learned, but it will help instill learning as a lifelong habit. When learning becomes a habit, you will be constantly transforming and updating the infrastructure of your brain.

In addition to learning one new thing each week, can I convince you to up the ante? For those who want an even bigger challenge, how about signing up for an adult education course? From gourmet cooking, to acting for rookies, to website design -- the possibilities are endless. It doesn't have to be rocket science to stimulate your mind. Just the act of pursuing a new interest will get your neurons firing along new pathways. Or how about joining a book group or taking up a new sport? The idea is to explore one new interest that will allow you to meet new people, engage in interesting discussions and expand your mind.

Now that the back to school rush is over, I hope you will take the time to nurture your mind. Remember, investing in your brain is the very best investment you can make. Have a beautiful brain day!

 

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