Brain aging and memory loss is a natural part of the aging process. As we age, our bodies slow down, and we tend to become forgetful. The good news is that research has shown that if we manage our daily activities using daily physical exercise, and other skill practice, we can maintain and even restore our memory function and learning ability. I have been experimenting with this my whole life in an effort to support my health, my learning, my overall improvement, and my memory. My goal is to avoid dementia and physical disability, and be able to enjoy my life for as long as I can.
There are five ways we can start doing today to fight brain aging:
Human learning should never stop. I always tell my family, and I cover it in my lectures and speaking, that the day you stop learning is the day you stop living. Learning is a big part of healing; healing is a big part of learning. learning slows down brain aging big time. When you start to learn things you don’t know, you start to shift your focus onto new knowledge, new approaches, new movement, and a new life style. Tai chi learning is continuous and multi-leveled in skill, depth, and meaning. Through continuous learning and practice, you will get the meaningful part—the true nature of Tai Chi. If you are just starting as a beginner, you will feel good immediately, from the exercised practice of relaxation. If you are an advanced student, you will feel good continuously, from the sustained practice of energy fluidity. Either way, you get benefits. Even people who do it incorrectly still get benefits. As you practice for more than a year or two, your tai chi form will become more graceful and beautiful, and you will feel like you are dancing in the clouds. This gives you an added feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction. Learning Tai Chi is challenging, but the challenge will lead to building a flexible brain that will support you as you age.
A Break in Your Routine
We grow up with certain fixed routines and most of us don’t want to change these routines. Such routines may include our diets, activities, thought processes, opinions, and lifestyles. We don’t like to do something if we are not familiar with it. While on a hiking trip with my sister and my husband in Acadia National Park, we got disoriented in the woods. My sister and I wanted to explore for a way out, but my husband insisted that we go back the same way to get out. Seeing his anxiety, I almost gave up and agreed to go back same way. Suddenly my sister found a new path. It guided us onto another main path, and we found our way back on track. She broke the routine and helped us find our way.
Routines can be brain deadening. When something unusual happens and gets us out of our routine, we get anxious; we sometimes don’t know what to do. We feel like our brains are not working. Just think, many of us go to work every day, come home, eat, sleep, go to work the next day—our brains are programmed in such a way that we don’t even have to think any more. Our brain cells lose communication opportunities, certain neural pathways shut down. Breaking the routine is a brain fitness workout. This allows new activities for the brain and encourages brain cells to communicate, opening new neural pathways. Watching TV is another brain killing activity; this doesn’t mean we need to give up on TV. I always like to watch the news and some nature programs and other educational programs. Research has shown that during TV watching, the brain is less active, even less active than during sleep! When you are watching TV, your brain is passive—or active in a passive way. Some TV program can even traumatize the brain, which can make us unable to view things as a whole. If you know how to balance your life, you will be careful to watch TV wisely, and add other brain fitness exercises into your life. Think for a moment: how many smart “couch potatoes” are there? (I don’t mean people who watch TV are all couch potatoes).
Better, Deeper Sleep
We know that sleeping disorders can accelerate aging, especially brain aging. When you look at a person with a sleeping problem, the first thing you notice is that she or he looks tired. The next thing you notice is the speech is slow. This indicates that the brain language center is sluggish, less active. The same is true for other parts of the brain. We have all had the experience that if we don’t sleep well the previous night, we notice that our minds are not clear, our memory is not sharp, and we cannot concentrate. Sleep-deprived, your brain has less ability to store new information, and less ability to retrieve the old information. In medical school, one of my most drastic problems was a sleeping disorder. This couldn’t have helped my memory problems. The day I graduated, I said to myself, I never want to go back to school again, even though I hadn’t done poorly at all.
Many of my patients who have sleeping problems tell me, “My brain is in a fog,” or they’ll say, “I can’t remember things …” If a person has had a long-term sleeping disorder, you can see that she looks older than her actual age. A good night’s sleep is also an important part of healing in dealing with many illnesses. Just think about a machine, if used nonstop, the machine soon breaks down.
With regular practice of tai chi and qi gong, your neurochemicals become balanced, your body’s electricity regulated, your sleeping becomes regulated, your brain exhaustion is relieved, brain alertness restored. Now, brain aging can be reversed. And so it does.
Bring in More Oxygen
As we know, the brain must consume oxygen to be able to function. It is the lungs that help us to get oxygen through the breath. If your brain lacks oxygen for six to nine minutes, your brain can be damaged. If you lack oxygen for twenty minutes, you will die. If your body lacks food for fifteen days, you may still live. The oxygen to our brain is very important. If your brain has enough oxygen, you are most likely alert; if your brain lacks oxygen, you feel tired, lethargic, overcome by the old mind fog. You will also notice, when you are tired or feel sleepy, you feel a little more clear after a big yawn. Yawning is the deepest breath we can take; we do it to get oxygen to our tired brains. One of the most important parts of preventing brain aging is getting enough oxygen to it.
Practicing qigong and tai chi involves deep breathing, which helps to bring more oxygen to your body and your brain; you will notice the change in your overall feeling. You will feel less cloudy, fresher, more alert, and more energetic.
Unique Tai Chi Movement Sequences
Tai chi movements are not like any other exercise. The special, choreographed movements are circular, and in constant motion. Many gestures cross the body from left to right, from upward to downward, and from right diagonal to left diagonal. The footwork is also slow, on the diagonal, well controlled, and with multiple changing stances. Through the controlled, slow, smooth, multidimensional—in spatial dimension and internal dimension—whole body movements, you learn to be aware of your body. You become aware of your tension, your balance, your energy, your emotional stability, and your visual surroundings. You pay attention to your energy center and self-correct your posture. You pay attention to know if you are off-center, or you lose your balance. You move with your intention; you move your body while your mind experiences calm and peace.
During the Tai Chi movement, you get sensory stimulation, motor stimulation, spatial orientation stimulation, forebrain and hindbrain stimulation, left-brain and right-brain stimulation, balance and equilibration stimulation, and cross-brain stimulation. Therefore, the whole brain is stimulated. Tai Chi movements are very good exercises for fighting brain aging for this reason. We use aerobic exercise to increase our heart rate and to promote better circulation; we also need brain fitness exercise to improve our brain function and learning abilities. Western science has confirmed that movement is crucial to brain health, and definitely affects cognitive change. Eastern practitioners of Tai Chi knew it all along.
Evidence shows that movement is also crucial to reverse brain aging, including memory, emotion, language, learning, and more. After you have learned some Qigong later in the book, try if for three to five minutes when you are tired after working or writing a paper for a while and your brain can’t seem to think anymore. You will realize you will be able to return to work refreshed, able to put more words on the paper. What is happening there? As we know, our “higher” brain functions evolved from basic mobility functions, and they still depend on them. Any immobile or sedentary lifestyle is prone to affect brain aging—too much TV or any other couch-potato, “brain dead” activity.