Spend time at the “brain gym”—any brain can be strengthened

Dr. Michael Merzenich headshotI am extremely pleased to introduce Dr. Michael Merzenich as a guest blogger today. Dr. Merzenich is one of the preeminent brain scientists in the world, and Easter Seals is working with him to develop new programs that improve brain health.

Brain health matters

by Dr. Michael Merzenich

America is aging, average life spans are lengthening, and the number of individuals with age-related neurodegenerative illnesses requiring continuous patient care is rapidly growing. More than half of us now spend the last months or years of our life under someone else’s continuous care. While life spans are expected to pass the century mark in the middle of the 21st Century, there has been little change over the past 50 years in the ages of onset of Alzheimers disease, Parkinson’s disease, or other age-related illnesses. On our current course, the human and financial costs of age-related decline and the progression to senile dementia and frailty will be societally unbearable.

One of our greatest contemporary challenges is to elucidate and deploy more effective prevention and treatment strategies for changing the course of aging to more reliably assure that brain spans more closely match our growing life spans.

Of course neurological problems can befall any one of us long before most of us have to worry about the risks of potentially catastrophic problems nearer the end of life. The majority of citizens have acquired neurological limitations or a psychiatric illness that has required medical treatment by the time we reached retirement age. Brain health issues ultimately apply for almost all of us.

Why hasn’t modern medicine been more concerned, then, with issues of brain health? Brain illustration One impediment to the development of brain-related medicine has our previously limited understanding of the ways that brain function actually relates to health. Now, because of a revolution in clinical neuroscience, this picture has radically changed. We now have a deep understanding of neurological processes that mark the healthy brain. We now understand how those processes are distorted in ways that account for the behavioral limitations expressed in most neurological and psychiatric maladies. Perhaps most importantly, we also now understand that the brain is continuously plastic. Any brain can be strengthened—and if necessary, significantly if not completely recovered—by specific forms of intensive self-directed brain remodeling.

I’ll bet that you have long understood that the condition of your physical body is very much a function of how you exercise it—of how you use it in your everyday life. We now know that your brain needs exercise every bit as much as your body does. Just like your body, there is lots of different neurological machinery that is just begging for some level of regular exercise. Such exercise is a key aspect of the neurological resilience so crucial for sustaining high functionality nearer to the end of your natural physical life. And any true recovery from psychiatric illness or neurological weakness can only come from that neurological remodeling.

In studies conducted in part with the support of Easter Seals, scientists working with me at the Brain Plasticity Institute at Posit Science have been working hard to create training tools that can help any older individual improve their brain health, and increase their resilience to minimize the probability of serious later-life problems. Just as importantly, these same training tools will help you improve your attention, memory, understanding, thinking, and problem solving abilities on the path to your having a richer, more effective and happier adult life, whatever your age. Easter Seals has been a world leader in delivering these powerful new forms of help to people in need. If you think YOU should spend a little time at the “brain gym” (…and if you’re uncertain, you probably should!), then check out the special program that we’ve developed for members of the Easter Seals family.

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