Healthy Aging

For Brain Health, Turn Up the Volume on Life

ruth curran


“Amp up life! Our generation was taught that we’re born with a certain number of brain cells and we live our life losing them, so deal with it. It’s so not true.”

At an age when many people expect us to turn the volume down, Ruth Curran turns up the volume on life instead. She says it’s an important part of maintaining brain health as we age.

Curran, who has an M.S. in cognitive psychology, should know. She worked her way back to brain health after a car accident in which she suffered a devastating traumatic brain injury.

In the process, she learned so much about keeping cognitively sharp that she wrote a book, “Being Brain Healthy.” The simple exercises and techniques in her book work on memory, attention and executive functioning (planning, keeping track of time and direction, multi-tasking), and are as applicable to the aging brain as they are to those with more serious cognitive deficiencies.

Curran spoke with Senior Planet by phone from her home office in San Diego, California.

What changes in cognitive functioning do seniors most commonly report?

I hear two issues, and both have to do with what’s called “working memory.” First, “Where are my… keys, shoes, coat” or, “What did I have for breakfast?” The other is the frustration we feel when we walk out of one room and into another and can’t remember what we’re doing there. That summons up the fear of dementia — but most of the time it’s normal aging.

As we age, we struggle to find the right word, someone’s name. It’s not that this kind of thing stops our lives, but it frustrates us because we used to remember everything! It’s loss of control that people really fear.

What do you advise people to do about that fear?

Just give yourself a break. Don’t make a small problem into something bigger. Sometimes, the right word just isn’t that important. Laugh about it. More often than not, it’ll come back to you if you just relax a bit.

When we give in to fear we set up stress processes in the brain that escalate. That creates chemical and electrical changes in our brains that make the situation even worse. Take a deep breath, relax and don’t worry whether the word you’ve lost will come back or not. It may not.

I’m not a proponent of retracing our steps when we can’t remember why we’re in a room, because we are dealing with working memory, which can only hold a certain amount of data at a time. When we walk from one space to another, we bring all those new things into our awareness and move other things out of our memory. One of those things may be the original reason you’re in the room.

But what if it is important and we do need to remember?

Make it important. Give it an emotional value. For example, if you’re afraid you’ll lose your new shoes, put them in a specific place and make a point of saying to yourself, “It’s important that I remember that I put these shoes in the guest room closet, because I plan to wear them to my best friend’s special party this weekend and they go perfectly with my outfit.”

What you are really doing is moving that thought, “Where I put my shoes,” from working memory —which is transient — to more permanent emotional memory. Of course, do this only with things that are really important, not with everything.

What about things like keys, glasses, the everyday things we frequently misplace?

Use compensatory strategy: something you do the same way every single time. My keys go in the same place every time I walk in the door. I don’t have to worry about it.

I get anxious when I can’t find my car in the grocery store parking lot, so I found an area — not a specific spot, as that might not be available — and I park in that general area every time, so that I don’t have to worry about it. Put things like medications in a consistent spot and include things you do at a specific time of day. If you must take meds with food, put them at your place at the table. These compensatory strategies can prevent a lot of the anxiety commonly felt by seniors.

Calendars are essential. Often women who have managed a household did so without a calendar. When they experience age-related memory issues they feel that using a calendar is a weakness. Not so at all, as anyone who had a career in business can tell you. Calendars are a life-saver in all generations!

How did you handle the fear and discouragement that came up after your accident when faced with holes in your own memory?

Not very well. Fear paralyzed me initially. I moved from being a highly competent and accomplished professional to someone who didn’t even know how to talk to people. I climbed out of the abyss one step at a time. It was a slow process.

I relied a lot on brain games to help me repair the pathways in my brain. One of the great things about games is that you can make a mistake, and there are no life-changing ramifications.

It’s all one step at a time, stretching the brain a little at a time. That’s true of anything, including keeping the aging brain as healthy as possible.

What other practical activities promoting brain health can seniors incorporate into their lives?

When I talk about amping up the volume of life, I mean making things a little more complicated so that the brain has to stretch a bit — but not crazy-complicated.

For example, the other night I was at a party in which cheese, apples and chili peppers were served. There’s the visual, of course, seeing the colors and shapes. Then, tasting the cheese itself was one experience, but when I added apple to it, the crunch of the apple changed how I experienced the appetizer. Wrapping it all in a chili pepper and biting into it, feeling the rush of spicy juice and noticing the combination of flavors and textures took my experience of the dish a step further. My brain was being exercised by simply noticing the varying taste and texture, making eating that appetizer just a bit more complex.

One day my husband and I decided to wear our golf shoes for our daily walk. It was an entirely new experience of our usual route, to say the least! And of course, we laughed.

Laughter is so important, and so is music. There’s been so much wonderful research on what happens to the brain chemically and electrically when we laugh and hear music. It doesn’t even have to be pleasing music—any emotion that is evoked activates multiple areas of your brain, and that keeps those pathways alive. So be sure to laugh!

Oh, here’s an easy thing: Standing in the grocery line, look at the magazine covers. Think of five other male actors with the same first names, for example. Or pick up a coffee cup at home and think of four other ways you can describe it: pencil holder, vessel for hot liquids, storage for bracelets, anything.

There’s a tendency to say “Oh, I do crosswords or Sudoku.” That’s great, but don’t overestimate their value and underestimate the value of all the other things you can be doing to keep multiple brain pathways open.

Is there a brain-body connection?

Thoughts, feelings, beliefs can make things better or make things worse, and so can general health. So it’s important to get some exercise and to be aware that stress will exacerbate memory problems.

How do you define “aging with attitude?”

Amp up life! If we sit back and let it happen to us, aging included, we miss life. Our generation was taught that we’re born with a certain number of brain cells and we live our life losing them, so deal with it. It’s so not true. We can make our lives better every single day. Aging with attitude recognizes that it’s not the number of brain cells that count but the number of connections between them. Those connections represent quality. Every time we make a new connection in the brain or reinforce one, we add quality to our lives. That’s aging with attitude to me!


9 responses to “For Brain Health, Turn Up the Volume on Life

  1. These are really great tips! And it’s so helpful to be reminded to not stress out. I rely a lot on strategies to help me remember things but the result is that I really over react when they fail me, as in “I always keep my keys in the same place – except this time when I didn’t and now where are they?” Good to be reminded that life happens.

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