Thursday, September 18, 2008

Stress Killing U ?

Brain Yoga: Stress — Killing You Softly

from Brain and Mind Fitness News
October 10, 2006

It’s clear that our society has changed faster than our genes. Instead of being faced with physical, immediately life-threatening crises that demand instant action, these days we deal with events and illnesses that gnaw away at us slowly without any stress release.

Dr. Robert Sapolsky, in an interview about his book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, points out that humans uniquely “can get stressed simply with thought, turning on the same stress response as does the zebra.” But, the zebra releases the stress hormones through life-preserving action, while we usually just keep muddling along, getting more anxious by the moment.

Prolonged exposure to the adrenal steroid hormones, like cortisol, released during stress can damage the brain and block the formation of new neurons in the hippocampus, which is the key player in encoding new memories in your brain. Recent studies have shown these neurons can be regenerated with learning and environmental stimulation, but while short-term stress may improve attention and memory, chronic stress leads indirectly to cell death and hampers our ability to make changes and be creative enough to even think of possible changes to reduce the stress.

What are the best defenses against chronic stress?
1. Exercise strengthens the body and can reduce the experience of stress, depression, and anxiety. Exercise promotes arousal and relaxation and improves quality of sleep.
2. Relaxation through meditation, biofeedback, yoga, or other techniques to lower blood pressure, slow respiration, slow metabolism, and release muscle tension.
3. Empowerment because attitudes of personal confidence and control of your environment, even if illusory, resolve the stress response.
4. Social network of friends, family, and even pets help foster trust, support, and relaxation.
So hey, go ahead, call your mom. It may save your life!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Calcium & Vit D supplements reduce bone loss

Dr. George Lundberg
The Medscape Medical Minute
We know that men and women over the age of 50 are prone to osteoporosis and increased risk of fractures. A group of investigators from New South Wales in Australia applied the tools of meta-analysis to address the continuing question of whether therapeutic oral calcium supplementation, with or without vitamin D, reduces bone mineral loss and risk of fracture.

Twenty-nine randomized trials of people over the age of 50 met their rigorous criteria for inclusion. In their study, recently published in The Lancet, the results demonstrated a significant reduction of bone loss at the hip and in the spine. Plus, there was a 12% reduction of fractures of all kinds. The dose did matter.

At least 1200 mg of calcium and 800 international units of vitamin D daily seemed best.[1] Ongoing studies may further elucidate any potential risks or additional benefits.

Monday, September 1, 2008

tips to keep brain "growing"

by laurie bartels

Back in July, I wrote a post entitled 10 Brain Tips To Teach and Learn. Those tips apply to students of any age, including adults, for ideally adults are still learners. Why is adult learning relevant in a brain-focused blog, you may wonder:

The short of it…
As we age, our brain:
• still forms new brain cells
• can change its structure & function
• finds positive stress can be beneficial; negative stress can be detrimental
• can thrive on novel challenges
• needs to be exercised, just like our bodies

The long of it…
Adults may have a tendency to get set in their ways – I’ve been doing it this way for a long time and it works, so why change? Turns out, though, that change can be a way to keep aging brains healthy. At the April Learning & the Brain conference, the theme of which was neuroplasticity, I attended several sessions on adult learning. Here’s what the experts are saying.

According to Kathleen Taylor & Annalee Lamoreaux, understanding that we have the ability to change our mental models, also known as epistemological change (a change in the way of knowing), will let us open the door to transformative learning (being willing to change and having an understanding of how to change). You can download the slides from their presentation here.

Learning something new outside our areas of expertise:
• keeps us fresh, which can add a spark to our teaching
• reminds us what it is like to be a student, which can help us empathize with our students
• exercises our mental muscles

Couple mental exercise with physical exercise, and you can improve general cognition and boost your creativity. Learn more about this from John Ratey’s book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, which makes a compelling case that exercise is beneficial for cognitive health.

Our brains may be aging, but they are also continuing to develop. Neurogenesis is the process of forming new brain cells, and unlike what was previously thought, this process continues throughout life, as noted in this Society for Neuroscience brain brief on Adult Neurogenesis.

Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to rewire itself. It empowers us to:
• fix damaged areas of our brains (as evidenced by the work of Edward Taub, Michael Merzenich, and Paul Bach-y-Rita, all mentioned in Doidge’s book, referenced below)
• continue to learn well into old age
• alter our behavior and performance over time
Norman Doidge writes extensively about plasticity in The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science, and notes that “brain plasticity occurs in response to the environment, the task at hand, and our thoughts and imaginings.” Indeed, “in some cases, the faster you can imagine something, the faster you can do it.”

In his session on stress and neuroplasticity in learning, Bruce McEwen concurred with Doidge, noting that “structural plasticity in the adult brain is modulated by experience”. He went on to discuss the impact of stressful experiences on neuronal activity, delineating three types of stress:
1. positive, which consists of positive challenges
2. tolerable, which consists of adverse life events coupled with good social and emotional support
3. toxic, which consists of a sustained stress agent and a lack of social and emotional support Exercise, in addition to aiding cognition, can be beneficial in helping the brain and the body manage stress.

Elkhonon Goldberg, neuroscientist and co-founder of SharpBrains, discussing Brain Plasticity and Cognitive Fitness, pointed out that “as we age, our expert knowledge remains strong, and our capacity for solving problems within our areas of expertise can often exceed that of those who are younger.” He further employed us to “turn neuroplasticity to your advantage” by:
• welcoming novel challenges
• beware of being on mental autopilot
• remain cognitively active

Goldberg elaborates on these points in his latest book, The Wisdom Paradox: How Your Mind Can Grow Stronger As Your Brain Grows Older.
Taken in sum, all of these ideas have me imagining professional development programs where teachers are encouraged to explore avenues outside of their expert areas. (More on that in a future post!) The combination of being a mentally and physically active lifelong learner isn’t just good modeling for younger brains; it’s also beneficial for us!

(Next post will consist of additional resources on these topics.)
Laurie Bartels writes the Neurons Firing blog to create for herself the "the graduate course I’d love to take if it existed as a program". She is the K-8 Computer Coordinator and Technology Training Coordinator at Rye Country Day School in Rye, New York. She is also the organizer of Digital Wave annual summer professional development, and a frequent attendee of Learning & The Brain conferences