Exercises in staying sharp, step by step

Are you fearful that your cognitive powers are spiraling out of control as a result of the aging process? While it is true that cognitive decline begins a slow, gradual descent around age 45, this decline is not always an inevitable result of the aging process. And having fleeting but frustrating moments when you cannot remember where your glasses are or recall the name of someone you haven't seen for a while does not mean you are destined for serious memory issues.
Major memory loss is generally caused by organic disorders, brain injuries or neurological issues. Good news for senior moments. Fortunately, when it comes to increasing learning and memory skills, research confirms that there are many ways we can sharpen our minds and actually improve memory as we age.
Tips for improving memory
Use it or lose it
It is believed exercises that stimulate the brain such as reading, traveling, card games, memory games, musical instruments -- even changing your daily routine around -- help stimulate the hippocampus, the part of the brain most responsible for memory.
It is also a good idea to challenge the brain by introducing new activities that you have never done before.
For me, personally, my latest mental stimulation is taking piano lessons, something I had never done -- and I love it!
Get movin'
Regardless of what part of the body you want to strengthen, you need to follow the "use it or lose it" principle.
When you begin to exercise, muscles will use oxygen at a significantly higher rate, increasing blood flow throughout the body, including the memory-brain area.
Just as exercise helps to keep arteries to the heart open, exercise will do the same for blood vessels in the brain. Even exercising in small doses can help sharpen your memory, but it is important for memory enhancement that the exercising be consistent.
Some studies indicate that regular exercise workouts can even reverse aging in the brain.
Friendships and fun
Maintaining a strong support system by interacting with friends, whether by phone or in person, can stimulate the brain.
In a recent study from the Harvard School of Public Health, researchers found that people with the most active social lives had the slowest rate of memory decline. And if friends aren't readily available, don't forget the friendship and love of a pet. They both come with cognitive benefits.
Adequate sleep
While occasional bouts of insomnia are generally nothing to be concerned about, chronic sleep deprivation can negatively affect memory recall.
If you have trouble sleeping, you might want to try listening to a progressive muscle-relaxation tape. Amazon.com has a variety of tapes available.
Chronic stress (activating the stress hormone cortisol) is a major contributor to memory loss. Because we cannot totally void our lives of stress, it would be better to think in terms of stress management rather than stress elimination.
Introducing relaxation techniques such as relaxation breathing into your daily living can help to defuse the biochemical and physiological reaction to the pending stress: Inhale deeply through your nose to a count of four, hold your breath for several seconds, then exhale through the mouth, taking twice as long (eight seconds).
Don't forget to laugh -- a great stress reliever! And learn to say no before taking on added responsibilities when your plate is already full.
Drink before you are thirsty.
Even a slight amount of dehydration can reduce mental energy resulting in memory impairment. It is recommended you drink 48 to 64 ounces -- or six to eight 8-ounce glasses -- of water daily.
Brain-boosting foods
Fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids are salmon, trout, tuna, halibut, sardines, mackerel and herring. Nonfish sources include walnuts, pumpkin seeds and soybeans.
Brightly colored fruits and veggies provide antioxidants, which play a major role in improving memory function.
Foods rich in folic acid are spinach, kale, collards, asparagus, black beans and romaine lettuce.
The Alzheimer's Society recommends eggs to improve memory. They have vitamins important for nourishing the memory center in your brain.
Hip rotator stretch
Stretches outer muscles of hips and thighs. Lying on a mat, bend knees, feet flat on floor. Keeping knees together and shoulders on floor, slowly lower knees to one side, as far as you can without forcing them; turn head in opposite direction. Hold position for 10-15 seconds.
Hip and lower back stretch
On hands and knees, abdominals contracted to support back, extend one leg diagonally to the back.
Standing side stretch
Standing tall, left ankle crossed over right ankle, hold onto a support with left hand. Inhale as you lean away from support, exhaling as you take opposite arm over to center of head.
The Saw (Pilates)
Stretches sides of back, hips and hamstrings. Sitting tall, extend legs, toes flexed, about shoulder-width apart, arms stretched out to the sides, shoulder-height. Contract abdominals, exhaling while turning torso and head to the right, reaching left hand to ankles or toes, without lifting hips off floor, Extend other arm diagonally to the side, shoulder-height.
Brain facts
Here are a few interesting facts from "100 Fascinating Facts You Never Knew About the Human Brain" (nursingassistantcentral.com):
-- The average brain weighs approximately 3 pounds and has about 100 billion neurons.
-- We are continually developing new neurons throughout our lives if we stimulate our brain though mental activity.
-- The brain is 75 percent water and uses about 20 percent of our oxygen when we are at rest.
-- The human brain is the fattest organ in the body and may consist of at least 60 percent fat.
-- The brain stops growing at age 18.
-- The average number of thoughts that humans are believed to experience each day is 70,000.

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