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10 reasons your brain needs this column

It was an innocent-enough stroll. I was casually walking by the floor-to-ceiling wall of magazines in a local bookstore when a particular publication called out to me. The cover had a colorfully muted portrayal of the human brain and stated, “100 Things You Never Knew.”

It was the current issue of National Geographic (updated and revised), and it was positioning itself as a “Users’ Manual” on brain health.

I knew that headlines such as “10 Salads that Will Make You Thinner” or “7 Ways to Exercise in a Hot Tub” are very effective at luring people in. “100 Ways to Brain Health?” Who could resist? Definitely not me.

And it did not disappoint. Articles focused on the different components of the human brain. There were full-page announcements throughout with splashy graphics that stated things like “Did you know that the brain has five specific areas that direct vision, sensation, movement, hearing and balance?” More vividly, “Did you know if you could spread out and flatten the cerebral cortex, it would be the size of a small tablecloth?” Now there’s an informed fact to use if conversation lags during your next summer picnic.

I looked at or thoroughly read every page, but the final section on “the aging brain” was definitely the most relevant. I kept being mesmerized by “100 Things You Never Knew.” Did you know memories are more likely to “stick” if they combine information and emotion? Did you know treatments to lift depression usually improve memory? Did you know a decline in verbal skills can be an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease?

It was comforting to be reminded that “other than a lightning strike,” an aging brain changes relatively gradually “in its abilities to perceive sensations, process information, create and store memories and learn.” Our processing speed slows, however. I am reminded of that every time I try to tackle a Lego project with my 6-year-old grandson or participate in equitably splitting the check after a restaurant dinner with aging friends.

The mind can manipulate only so much information at one time. Researchers have found that people can keep only seven new pieces of information in their memory before going on overload. Here’s a simple illustration. If a new acquaintance asks you to call them and you have no pen and paper to write down their number — let’s say it’s 555-828-1947 — you are likely to forget the number. A little hint however, if you know the city attached to that area code and plant that city in your mind, you only have to remember seven digits — and you probably will. Say that seven-digit number out loud a few times and you are even more likely to recall it.

Did you know? Some areas of mental ability can actually increase with age. For instance, vocabulary often improves, and language skills can sharpen. But like all the important things in life, maintaining brain health means you make informed choices. It means you 1) seek medical treatment when you need it; 2) ensure regular (daily) physical activity; and, 3) try to increase cognitive and sensory challenges.

If you did not know that — now you do.

Sharon Johnson is a retired educator and executive director of Rebuilding Together Rogue Valley. Reach her at sharon@rbtrv.org.