Monday Mornings with Madison

Boost Your Brain to Extend Your Career

There is one thing that all people – from entry level employees to top leaders in every profession and occupation – have in common.  Every person is getting older.  It is generally accepted that with age comes deterioration.  By middle age, there is the appearance of gray hair, age spots and wrinkles.  On the inside, the deterioration is less visible but possibly more profound.  Inflammation causes stiff joints.  Brain cells deteriorate.  This affects memory, communication, language, ability to focus and pay attention, reasoning and judgment, and visual perception.  Over time, such mental wear-and-tear can profoundly impact workplace productivity, safety, creativity, interpersonal skills and more.

In a nation that is increasingly getting older – with 40% of the U.S.’s 318 Million people now aged 45 or older — what can companies to do about its aging workforce?  What is a person to do to stay productive and valuable at work?  Until recently, it was believed that mental deterioration was inevitable with age.  However, scientists are now discovering that this is simply not true. The human brain has an astonishing ability to adapt and change—even into old age. This ability is known as neuroplasticity. With the right stimulation, the human brain can form new neural pathways, alter existing connections, and adapt and react in ever-changing ways… at any age.  In fact, the brain’s incredible ability to reshape itself even holds true when it comes to learning and memory.  People can harness the natural power of neuroplasticity to increase cognitive abilities, enhance the ability to learn new information, and improve memory.  Here are some top tips to boost brain power and extend the value and productivity of employees…. of all ages.

Brain Booster #1 – Give the body proper fuel:  exercise and nutrition.

This brain booster is a no-brainer.  It is well established and accepted that an athlete needs a lot of exercise and a nutrition-packed diet to perform best.  The same is true for everyone…. even the bean counters and pencil pushers of any organization.   A person’s ability to remember increases when the brain is nurtured with good diet and healthy habits.

In exercising the body, a person is also exercising the brain.  Treating the body well can enhance the ability to process and recall information.  Exercise increases oxygen to the brain and reduces the risk for disorders that lead to memory loss, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Exercise also enhances the effect of helpful brain chemicals and protects brain cells.

When it comes to food, a diet based on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, “healthy” fats (such as olive oil, nuts, fish) and lean protein can improve memory.  For example, omega-3 fatty acids are particularly beneficial for brain health. Fish is a particularly rich source of omega-3, especially cold water “fatty fish” such as salmon, tuna, halibut, trout, mackerel, sardines, and herring.  Eating fish can also lower the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.  Non-fish sources of omega-3s include walnuts, ground flaxseed, flaxseed oil, winter squash, kidney and pinto beans, spinach, broccoli, pumpkin seeds, and soybeans.  Fruits and vegetables are also good for the brain. Produce is packed with antioxidants, substances that protect your brain cells from damage. Colorful fruits and vegetables are particularly good antioxidant “superfood” sources.  Likewise, green tea contains polyphenols, powerful antioxidants that protect against free radicals that can damage brain cells. Regular consumption of green tea is found to enhance memory and mental alertness and slow brain aging.

Brain Booster #2 – Give it a rest…. Get lots of ZZZZZs.

This brain boosting activity is one that is ignored by many and often undersupplied.  Sleep is critically important to brain function, especially memory.  A typical adult needs from seven to nine hours of uninterrupted sleep.  Less than seven hours of sleep is bad.

Memory is deeply affected by sleep.  During REM sleep, the brain transfers memories from short-term to long-term memory… a process called memory consolidation.  .When the brain is sleep deprived, it does not operate at full capacity. Creativity, problem-solving abilities, and critical thinking skills are also compromised.  In trying to juggle life’s many demands, sleep deprivation reduces the ability to cope and manage.

Interestingly, just as with exercise and food, too much sleep is also bad.  More than nine hours of sleep daily is linked with depression and other disorders.

Brain Booster #3 – Interact with others!

Now this is the kind of brain boosting that is sure to appeal to everyone.  While most people think the best way to improve memory is to do “challenging activities,” such as doing the New York Times crossword puzzle or playing Soduko or strategizing in Chess, that is only partly true.  Lighthearted pastimes, such as spending time with friends and family, also offer cognitive benefits.

Not surprisingly, people are highly social beings…. not meant to be left alone.  Relationships stimulate the human brain.  In fact, interacting with others is one of the best kinds of brain exercise.  Research shows that meaningful relationships and a strong support system are vital not only to emotional health, but also to brain health. A study by the Harvard School of Public Health, found that people with the most active social lives had the slowest rate of memory decline.

Brain Booster #4 – Laugh!!!!

It’s been said that laughter is the best medicine.  Apparently that is true for the brain and the memory as well as the body.  Unlike other emotional responses, laughter engages multiple regions across the whole brain.  Also, listening to jokes and working out punch lines activates areas of the brain vital to learning and creativity. Laughter seems to help people think more broadly and associate more freely.

Brain Booster #5 – Avoid stress.

Of course, this is much easier to say than to do, especially at work.  That said, stress is one of the brain’s worst enemies. Over time, if left unchecked, chronic stress destroys brain cells and damages the hippocampus, the region of the brain involved in the formation of new memories and the retrieval of old ones.

Brain Booster #6 – Find inner peace…. Meditate.

The scientific evidence for the mental health benefits of meditation continues to increase. Studies show that meditation helps improve many different types of conditions, including depression, anxiety, chronic pain, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Meditation also can improve focus, concentration, creativity, memory, and learning and reasoning skills.  It also eliminates stress and boosts memory.

Meditation works by changing the actual brain. Brain images show that people who meditate regularly have more activity in the left prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with feelings of joy and equanimity. Meditation also increases the thickness of the cerebral cortex and encourages more connections between brain cells—all of which increases mental sharpness and memory ability.

Brain Booster #7 – Expand horizons and break routines.

By adulthood, the brain has developed millions of neural pathways to help process and recall information quickly, solve familiar problems, and execute familiar tasks with minimal mental effort. That’s good…. and bad.  Sticking to routines does not give the brain the stimulation to keep growing and developing. It is important to break out of ruts and try new things.  Take a different road to work.  Learn how to play a new game.  Take lessons to learn a new skill, such as how to crochet, cook, or garden.  Memory, like muscular strength, requires use.  The more the brain exercises, the better a person can process and remember information. Activities that require memory and use of the body are excellent, such as learning how to play an instrument or making pottery.  Such activities require hand-eye coordination, spatial-temporal reasoning, and creativity, forcing the brain to create new neural path connections.

While it may not seem like brain health is a matter of concern for businesses, it should be.  Skilled, trained employees — who are an intricate part of an organization – are not easily replaceable.  Replacing top talent costs companies time and money.  As employees age, it is imperative for staff to maintain their brain health so that they can continue to bring their “A Game” daily.  By following these simple brain boosting tips, individuals can push off the deterioration that is often associated – but that can be avoided – with age.  Since everyone reading this is getting older, why not give it a try?

Quote of the Week

“You have powers you never dreamed of. You can do things you never thought you could do. There are no limitations in what you can do except the limitations of your own mind.” Darwin P. Kingsley



© 2014, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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