Thanks to everyone who sent in a question for Gillian. Here are the Top 10!

A special congratulations to Esme who is the winner of a copy of the 7 Day Brain Boost Plan for her question.

Click on each question to see Gillian’s answer (and Dr Allison Lamont, of course!)

Esme’s Winning Question

Gillian, there are lots of health products on the market which proclaim to increase brain health and retention ability. Do you think any of health products assist? - Esme

Hello Esme,

A great question! And an important one because so much money is spent promoting supplements and products that have very little research supporting their efficacy. Memory Foundation does not endorse any supplements other than the vitamins and nutrients gained from a healthy, balanced diet. Dr Jian Guan from the Centre for Brain Research has carried out extensive research into why the brain ages and she maintains that there are no bad foods and no superfoods – all food contributes to the building blocks of the body and brain; she advocates eating only 80% of what we think we need, though!

Doctors may prescribe certain supplements like iron, iodine, zinc if a deficiency has been identified and that is quite a different matter. Of course, you would follow medical advice and there may well be specific products that will supply the nutrients you need. As regards restoring memory, though,  there is little research to support some of the exaggerated claims you hear. It is much more likely that the reported  ‘improvements’ come about because, having paid a lot of money for a supplement, the person then pays much more attention to remembering. And that is a strategy that will bring positive results. We all know that paying more attention to what you want to remember definitely works!

What has happened between the time when you left a crossword, or even a sudoku puzzle for a while and when you get back to it later to suddenly have the answers leap out at you? Has whatever may or may not have happened been of benefit to the neuron-synapse connections in the brain, and is that benefit permanent, transitory or ‘all in the mind’? - Christopher

Hello Christopher

Briefly, once a thought has begun in the working memory function of the brain, the connections (neuron-synapse system) continue to fire even if you are no longer focusing on that task at the moment. Your brain keeps seeking the correct connections. Relaxation and a change of focus often allow this process to continue more quickly if not impeded by anxiety, worry or stress.

If you have concentrated on the task (like the crossword or the Sudoku) for long enough for it to be partially processed, then that information will continue to be processed or thought about. Chains of neurons start to process the clues and possibilities – there will be thousands of neurons busily at work. When you go off to do something else, they don’t just switch off, but the neurons which have started to consolidate a ‘pathway’ to deal with the puzzle (or thought) will continue to work on it. Once the information is lodged as a memory trace (a very active process that we are responsible for) then the automatic neural pathways of the brain start to take over.

Is this neural pathway permanent or transient?
When word searching for crosswords or working on a Sudoku puzzle for example, if you have done them before, you will reactivate ‘old’ pathways you used before, as well as integrating the new information you need for the present version of the puzzle. That’s why we can become quicker and more skilled at crosswords or Sudoku – the neural pathway becomes stronger and stronger and works more efficiently with practice. It is the same for thoughts, remembering names, swotting for exams and a myriad of other things our clever brain does.

The benefits accumulated from a lot of cognitive stimulation or exercise stays with us, and increases, as long as we don’t sit back on our laurels and thing ‘that’s it, done enough’. Pathways that are used become stronger and stronger, and faster and faster.

If you are tackling something you do very occasionally, then the neural pathway can be transitory. I immediately think of my daughter showing me how to transfer information from Itunes to my Ipod. She shows me once when she is visiting and then talks me through it. I am sure I have it. What I really need to do is then practise it several times until I lock that information into place. Unfortunately, I don’t. So months later when I want to do a transfer, I can’t remember how. So that knowledge is transitory if we don’t keep using the pathway – but it can be reactivated with another couple of times of being shown how.

Like learning French at school. If you don’t use it for 30 years there won’t be much left. But, if you then went to France you would pick up the language far more quickly than someone who didn’t struggle with French grammar and pronunciation at school – the old patterns of neural pathways wake from slumber and reactivate.

Brain health is a complex matter. Does science suggest that genetics play an important role in developing dementia or Alzheimers or are environmental and lifestyle choices more important? - Ann C.

Hi Ann,

Your question is one that addresses a concern many people have and the best answer I can give you is this article which quotes recent research.

Do you think that doing this memory training can prevent dementia? - Liz S

Hi Liz,

Thank you for your great question – once that concerns a lot of people.

As you will no doubt know, dementia is a disease with a number of causes, the most commonly spoken of being Alzheimer’s disease. Sadly, there is no known cure for dementia as yet.

What we do know now though is that neuroscience has established that a robust cognitive reserve created while the brain is still healthy can act as a buffer against the disease in some cases and delay the onset of symptoms. That amazing outcome works for brain injury also – you may have seen a stroke patient gradually regaining use of a limb or speech – other brain connections are taking on the functions of the damaged neurons in the brain.

The message is, of course, to challenge your brain as much as possible while it is healthy and working well!

I have a number of things going on in my mind at the same time. Unless I can ‘stack’ these things, this personal focus means my mind is not focussing on what I am actually doing. Any comments ? I find if I am moving an object – usually at pace – I am looking at where it is going and not focussing on the journey of the movement, and I tend to knock, possibly damage, something on the way. I have thought of doing something like ‘Tai Chi’ to help this trait. Any thoughts?

You have identified the issues for yourself!

Paying attention for long enough is the key to an alert memory. Over the age of 50 or so, we become much more easily distracted and so our divided attention uses up the cognitive reserve we have available at the time. That’s why it is very difficult to walk and text at the same time (not sure if you have tried that!). I guess the secret is to slow down, pay attention to the task in hand and improve concentration. Tai Chi would be VERY helpful in training this habit.

What are your top tips for keeping our brain and memory ‘Fit for Life’? - Andrea L.

Thank you for your question, Andrea!

The number one tip is Pay Attention! Focus on what you want to remember for long enough to commit it to long-term memory (this processing takes about 7 seconds, plus or minus two seconds).

Making sure you take the few seconds it needs to attach memory traces to information you want to remember is also very important. (You’ll find out about memory traces in Brain Tune™.)

And here is great advice from some hundred-year-olds I met in China.

I’m about to turn 73 and have always been alert and able to have total recall for events and conversations. In the last six months I am having a bit of trouble remembering recent conversations even when they are something I really want to recall. Is it too late for me? - Kate

This is a great question, Kate

And no, of course it isn’t too late for you! There are a lot of reasons why forgetfulness can occur and the most usual one is that distractions take our attention away from the subject in had. Keeping the mind from ‘wandering’ on to another topic is one of the tasks we 73-year-olds have to pay attention to! Healthy brains continue to grow new neurons (brain cells) at the rate of about 1400 a day right through your life-time, as long as there is something for them to do. So keeping your brain challenged and firing is an important part of this regeneration process.

How much do you think the positive or negative thinking/attitude affects memory degeneration in an individual? Mary M.

That’s a great question, Mary!

One of the most powerful factors in retaining an alert memory is self-belief or self-efficacy. Believing you will remember – even if the result takes a little longer than it used to – ensures that your working memory continues to seek answers, even if you have mentally and physically moved on to something else.

Giving up when something is difficult, disconnecting socially, disengaging from a new experience or ‘drifting off’ and losing concentration – all of these lead to memory degeneration. In simple terms, there is nothing for the brain to do! So new brain connections are not generated as vigorously as in a stimulated brain.

I play Bridge and complete 2 Sudokus and the Code Cracker daily. I am nearly 70. Is this enough to keep my brain fit for life? - Margaret M.

Hello Margaret,

A great question!

And well done for keeping your brain exercised – those Sudokus and Codecracker can be a challenge. And that is the main point, your brain flourishes when you take enough exercise (physical and mental) eat well and maintain a healthy body weight. The key thing is whether those puzzles are pushing your out of your comfort zone. Brain connections grow when you are doing something that is hard for you to do – learning something new and challenging. If you struggle with Sudoku, then it might be enough. If not, maybe it is time for the cryptic crosswords!!