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Thinking - your brain needs it!

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By Ross Walker

Cogito ergo sum - I think, therefore I am. This famous phrase was made by the French philosopher, René Descartes in 1644. In so many ways, the way we think defines us. The quality of your life is often defined by the quality of your thinking. My daughter, Dr Ali Walker, has recently published her first book - “Get Conscious - How to overcome overthinking”. Yes, many of us overthink, but without good-quality, well-crafted thinking, many of us live in misery.

Maintaining high-quality thinking, otherwise known as cognition, is vitally important as we age. Unfortunately, as we age, too many people across the globe are succumbing to the ravages of dementia. In Australia, there are just over 413,000 people living with some form of dementia, making it the second leading cause of death after cardiovascular disease. Around 1.2 million people in Australia are involved in the care of someone with dementia. 1 in 10 people older than 65 have some form of dementia.

There are so many questions around dementia and its most common cause, Alzheimer’s disease, which remain unanswered. Is it preventable? Can it be treated? Can it be reversed? Are there any effective treatments etc., etc.?

There are certainly no magic bullets for the prevention, management and possible reversal of dementia, but there are definitely some promising advances.

I reported over 12 months ago, the results of the pilot study of the MEND program where 10/11 patients with varying degrees of Alzheimer’s disease demonstrated some degree of reversal. There have been a number of new and old drugs trialled with varying degrees of promise. There are increasing studies around various aspects of lifestyle showing improvement in thinking and other negative factors demonstrating impairment of thinking.

Three new trials have reinforced prior studies around these aforementioned lifestyle factors. The long quoted “use it or lose it” concept has been reinforced with a recent study of 17,000 people over age 50, showing those who regularly performed word puzzles, typically crosswords, scored much better on tests of attention, reasoning speed and memory accuracy, compared with those who didn’t do crosswords.

The much maligned, naughty indulgence of enjoying a few pieces of chocolate has been recently demonstrated to improve thinking, attention, processing speed, verbal fluency and working memory. So, the next time you enjoy a couple of pieces of chocolate (and especially dark chocolate), see it as therapy.

But, what about certain lifestyle and environmental factors that may have negative, long-term consequences on our thinking ability? There are the obvious toxins that are clearly linked to cognitive decline such as poor diets, cigarette smoking, excessive and prolonged alcohol consumption, inactivity, poor sleep and, of course, the chronic use of illegal drugs in any form, including marijuana, which should not be confused with medical cannabis.

But, a recent study has looked at the effect of so-called “smart phones”, which may be seen as a distinct oxymoron. This study looked at 800 regular smartphone users and conducted an experiment with the phone switched to silent mode. The owner was exposed to one of three circumstances:

1) The phone was in sight and within reach

2) The phone was nearby but out of sight

3) The phone was not in the room with the owner

Participants were then tested for various aspects of cognitive ability requiring a high level of concentration, involving an assessment of working memory and functional fluid intelligence. These tests are designed to assess an individual’s ability to store and process new information, along with a person’s ability to consider and solve new problems.

It appears that the mere presence of the smart phone is such a distraction that it affects a person’s ability to concentrate on the task at hand. There was a gradation of effect based on the proximity and presence of the phone. The more dependent and closer the person was to their phone, the greater the negative effect on cognitive performance.

The major question here is, “is this just an acute effect of the study or does it have long term consequences?”

A quote that has often been attributed to Albert Einstein stated, “I fear the day that technology will surpass human technology. The world will have a generation of idiots”.

In our complex, time poor and often very stressful world, it is vitally important we look after our greatest asset, ourselves. Clearly, one of the major factors here is the quality of our thinking, which is very much housed in our brain. You are only given one brain and therefore you should use it wisely.

Published: Thursday, August 03, 2017


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