Try this Deceptively Simple Way to Rejuvenate Your Brain
November 28, 2016
Article courtesy of Tony Dearing for NJ.com
Everything we need to know about keeping our brain young, we learned as a child — and then stopped doing.
But Denise Medved wants to reacquaint us with the sense of playful learning. It’s the same learning that honed our minds in childhood and can keep us mentally sharp in our later years.
Medved’s innovation is called Ageless Grace. It’s a program designed to replenish aging brains through a set of 21 exercises. These exercises seem simple, even silly, on the surface. But, they’re based on a sophisticated concept called neuroplasticity.
“The science behind it is that you can actually build brain cells,” says Denise Crowley. Denise is the community resource manager for the Somerset County Office on Aging. “What I found with seniors is when we go through Ageless Grace and explain the benefit, it may seem a little silly or juvenile to do these things. But there are so many benefits for your brain and body. Once they get it, they are more apt to do it.”
The idea of creating new brain cells is a radical one.
Until recently, even medical experts assumed that we were born with all the brain cells we’d ever have. As those brain cells died off, they were irreplacable, and our brain eroded.
That was the conventional wisdom, anyway. We know better now.
It wasn’t until the 1990s that science began to accept the notion that we’re capable of creating new brain cells. Or neurons, or even new neural connections throughout our life. The process is neurogenesis.
Research has demonstrated that animals, and presumably humans, can generate new neurons and new neural pathways. A simple addition of a combination of physical activity and by exposing the brain to new ideas and new ways of doing things.
That’s where many older adults do their brain a disservice. As we age, we tend to become sedentary and set in our ways. We settle into familiar, comfortable routines. Worse yet, old age can become a time of isolation and loneliness.
This combination of inactivity, loss of social interaction and lack of mental stimulation is a terrible triple-whammy to the brain. It speeds cognitive decline and increases the risk of dementia.
This is within our ability to prevent, and there are many ways to do it. One option is Ageless Grace, a program that’s become popular in New Jersey and across the country.
Ageless Grace was founded by fitness entrepreneur Denise Medved, based on seven years of research in neuroplasticity and geriatrics. More than 1,600 people have been certified to teach Ageless Grace, including 24 in New Jersey. It’s practiced in all 50 states and 13 other countries.
Medved says as kids, we played hide-and-seek or kick-the-can. We learned to tie our shoes and ride a bike. We may have taken up a musical instrument, or soccer, or gymnastics.
We did it for fun, but in reality, we were getting exercise, developing motor skills and creating new neural pathways in our brain.
And then something bad happened. We grew up and stopped playing around.
“From when we’re little until when we’re 18 years old, there’s a lot of movement we do that as we get older, especially when we get in the workforce, we don’t do anymore,” Crowley says. “You’re watching TV, you’re sitting at work, you’re on the computer. You’re not moving. Ageless Grace gets you moving again.”
Crowley says when people try the program at Somerset County senior centers, the impact can be transformational.
“I fell in love with it because of the benefits I could see for seniors,” Crowley says. “It affects your mind, your body and your spirit. It’s for the whole person.”
An Ageless Grace session takes about 45 minutes, and includes exercises — called “tools” — that are designed to challenge five areas of cognition: analytic, strategic, kinesthetic learning, memory and creativity.
The exercises, which have whimsical names such as Juicy Joints, Body Math or Try Chi, also address such physical functions as core strength, balance, flexibility and breathing.
I recently attended an Ageless Grace class led by Crowley and Roslyn Gerken at the Montgomery Senior Center. About 50 adults of various ages sat in a circle of chairs, laughing their way through a set of exercises that turned out to be harder than they looked.
“It’s never too late to begin and it’s never too early to start,” Gerken said. “We’re going to move to the groove, sit down and tone up, and exercise to the beat without leaving your seat.”
Doing all the exercises seated is deliberate. Gerken says it engages the core muscles, which tend to weaken as we age. In addition, making people do things sitting down that they normally do standing up challenges the brain to think differently, because the behavior isn’t habitual.
One exercise asked us to draw a circle with one hand, a triangle with the opposite foot and a line with the elbow. In a radio interview, Medved explained the neurogenesis that occurs when we’re given a task like that.
“It’s critical to active aging to continue to develop new neural pathways by practicing simple physical skills you don’t already know how to do,” she said. “The whole point is to do something physical that is new to you and let the brain process what you are attempting to do. This begins to create new neural pathways.”
After the program I talked to John DiRocco, an 81-year-old retired Maytag repairman from Boston who now lives in Princeton. He’s been doing Ageless Grace for about four months.
“At first I thought it was silly, but I realized I was getting better,” he said. “My legs are stronger. If you don’t move, you lose it. You can’t be sedentary.”
He’s right about that. Physical activity is a proven way to stay healthy and mentally sharp in later life. A review of 18 scientific studies demonstrated that healthy adults between the ages of 55 and 80 who took part in physical fitness training scored better on cognitive tests. Another study found the same results for people 65 and older who already had some degree of cognitive impairment or dementia.
The book: “The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness,” by Alvaro Fernandez and Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg. The authors say aerobic exercise can stop, and even reverse, the brain atrophy that begins in our 40s. It is particularly beneficial for memory and higher cognitive functions.
It doesn’t have to be strenuous exercise, either. It can be as basic as walking, or in the case of Ageless Grace, doing 45 minutes of energetic movement. Using the arms, legs and core stimulates the brain as well.
“It is something where you can come to one exerices class, and learn and get the benefits,” Crowley says. “But what happens is when they start coming, they enjoy it and they continue to come.
Photo courtesy Ageless Grace