No Brainer: Boosting Mental Fitness

You might be able to Botox your wrinkles away, but there’s one part of your body that definitely can’t escape the ravages of time: your brain. Vicki O’Brien investigates the business of boosting mental fitness and explains why B.C. employers should be doing more to keep their stressed-out, aging workforce tuned in and turned on.


You might be able to Botox your wrinkles away, but there’s one part of your body that definitely can’t escape the ravages of time: your brain. Vicki O’Brien investigates the business of boosting mental fitness and explains why B.C. employers should be doing more to keep their stressed-out, aging workforce tuned in and turned on.

On a mild spring evening in mid-March of this year, more than 1,500 people showed up for a free public forum at UBC. The crowd filled the university’s largest venue and spilled over into two lecture rooms, while 150 others tuned in at home for a simultaneous webcast. Was this a charismatic world leader outlining a new strategy for eradicating hunger or solving problems in the Middle East? A Hollywood star expounding on the virtues of international adoption?

Thanks for the memories Ever stood staring aimlessly into an open fridge? Or lost your car in a parking lot? Don’t worry about it, says Jonathan Schooler, professor of psychology and Canada research chair in social cognitive science at UBC. Being absent-minded is a normal part of aging. “Most of us just need a little reassurance,” he says with a laugh. “Our mind is actually designed to forget information; it allows us to separate the forest from the trees. If you really stop to take a look at what you forget, it’s generally not that serious.” Schooler says we all forget things. But while we remember them later, people with irreversible forms of dementia never do. Dementia affects much more than memory, Schooler notes. It also affects mood, behaviour and problem solving. “You’re generally looking for something that doesn’t fit with the person’s former level of function, which is why family members tend to notice our symptoms first.” He says forgetting where we parked the car is a normal memory lapse that happens to everyone. “But while most of us eventually find our car, people with Alzheimer’s lose the capacity to adjust and solve the problem. In fact, they might quickly conclude that their car was stolen.” Memory problems that are not a normal part of aging also include forgetting things much more often than you used to, forgetting how to do things you’ve done many times before, having trouble learning new things, repeating phrases or stories in the same conversation, having trouble making choices or handling money and not being able to keep track of what happens each day. (If this is you or someone you know, contact a family physician to arrange for appropriate testing.) When asked for his top tip to staying sharp, Schooler suggests meditation. “If you clear your mind and focus on your breath, you can train yourself to be really attuned to the moment,” he says. “Then you’re much more likely to remember that you parked on P2.”
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Why are we so worried? Put simply, we’re getting older. We’re living longer and investing a ton of cash and sweat equity into buffing up our bodies and rejuvenating our wrinkled skin – and we don’t want to lose our marbles before we reach our golden years. Health-conscious boomers are watching, horrified, as their parents decline before their eyes. Their own old age is looming, and it’s looking ever longer. B.C. men now lead the world in male life expectancy, reaching an average age of 79, which even surpasses the expiry date of long-lived Japanese men, who have traditionally led the pack. Women in B.C. can still expect to outlive men, surviving to the ripe old age of 85. While increased longevity seems like good news, a growing number of us will inevitably face the combined effects of a decline in physical and mental function, if not a chronic disease related to mental health. While we still fear living in poverty in our dotage and losing the freedom of a youthful physical body, today we seem more afraid of a seemingly inevitable mental decline – and desperately want to know what we can do to stave it off. According to the experts, the news is good: like daily exercise, regular workouts for the brain over the long term can extend mental fitness well into those later years. Just ask Guy Pilch, who has done away with his TV. Instead of sitting in front of the tube, he works on his Spanish, reads prodigiously, plays Scrabble and learns chunks of poetry to improve his brainpower. Despite a busy consulting schedule, he regularly makes time to practise reiki, a Japanese stress-reduction and relaxation technique. Pilch, president of Victoria-based Train the Brain Consulting Inc., is a mental-fitness consultant who takes a holistic, mind-body-spirit approach to brain health. For 10 years, he has shared his techniques with interested members of the public, but he now concentrates almost exclusively on corporate and public-sector clients, offering a broad selection of programs on corporate mental fitness, smarter working strategies and leadership development. After a brief career in U.K. network television, Pilch emigrated to Canada, went back to school, completed his master’s in psychology and became a counsellor in the fields of mental health, addictions and psycho-geriatrics. He developed his trademarked Brainfit program to help himself assimilate new concepts and ideas while coping with the pressures of a fast-paced health-care working environment. Out of interest, he tested his basic techniques on patients in the early stages of dementia, with surprisingly positive results. He claims his strategies help people stay sharp, resist stress, manage change and handle information overload. [pagebreak] Amid the pressure and stress of a busy working environment, Pilch says, some of us feel we must maintain a hectic pace or our employer and colleagues will think we are slacking. “This is crazy. We need periods of relative calm to balance the hectic crisis moments. Even in high-paced organizations where the workload is heavy, there are tools and techniques that give small but significant periods of refreshment and rest to our overstimulated brains. These rest breaks help people stay sharp and handle their workload without becoming overstressed.” Pilch says that without sufficient “brain rest” our bodies may force rest upon us by way of a health crisis or burnout, and we may find ourselves on sick leave. We may even be fired. “It makes us like lab rats spinning on our wheels, feeling that the faster we run we still can’t get ahead. This is the reality for most people today, and it is extremely unhealthy. Many of us are afraid, tired, stressed and desperate for some practical help.” Pilch teaches weary, stressed-out workers skills they can use in their business and personal lives to boost awareness, productivity and happiness. “I help people become more alert, be less easily tired and remember more. But I also do a higher-order mental-fitness training inside organizations to help align people with their purpose and keep them fulfilled in the workplace.” Recent research in organizational psychology has highlighted what he calls the problem of “presenteeism,” where workers keep coming to work but underperform, which he says results in lost productivity, resistance to change, low morale, poor working relationships, bad customer relations and other major challenges to productivity and profitability. But it isn’t just organizations with aging workforces that will have to change their thinking, he stresses. “In the coming years, dull, boring, top-down, command-and-control work environments are going to struggle more and more to attract and retain good staff,” he says. “Gen-Xers and even more millennials have seen boomers ground down by the work environment. They’ve seen downsizing and layoffs for years and are skeptical of the concept of company loyalty. Today’s smart employers will invest in training and resources to satisfy their workers’ need for creative, healthy workplaces and interesting work experiences.” Being mentally fit late in life has never been more crucial to the health of the local economy. The current labour shortage has placed a premium on workers, and as a result many companies have launched recruitment campaigns to target older and retired workers. Today close to a third of Canadians are aging boomers jogging toward retirement. This has significant implications for B.C.’s labour environment, as both public- and private-sector employers struggle to deal with such issues as knowledge transfer and skills shortages. As government and corporations focus on replacing retirees in a highly competitive job market, a heavier burden will be placed on younger employees to hold the fort, and there is a cost to this added pressure on the up-and-coming generation of employees. Statistics Canada already puts the cost of work time lost to stress at $12 billion a year, due to absenteeism, lost productivity, poor customer service and escalating short- and long-term disability claims. A recent study by the Canadian Policy Research Network says absenteeism has increased steadily since the 1990s for both sexes; time lost for personal reasons rose from 7.4 days per worker in 1997 to 9.7 days in 2006. Max Cynader, director of UBC’s Brain Research Centre, says the demographic trend raises two important issues for B.C. employers: how to keep your workforce healthy, happy and free from the sort of chronic stress that makes them sick and injures your bottom line; and how to keep your older workers engaged and excited so they’ll stay on with your organization when mandatory retirement finally bites the dust. “Older employees tend to be better at big-picture tasks and not so good with details,” observes Cynader. “But they bring a lot of wisdom to the table, and we should be looking at creative ways to attract them because they can make a strong contribution.” Experts are quick to note that mental fitness isn’t just of concern to the over-50 set. Today’s enlightened employers are investing in mental-fitness programs designed to boost organizational brainpower and de-stress their workforce. Once the sole domain of snake-oil salesmen and illusionists, the concept of brain training has now gone mainstream in the much more capable hands of experienced educators, psychologists and counsellors, who view our stressed-out workplaces as a good business opportunity. Vancouver-based Terry Small is a 33-year teaching veteran who says the concept of improving mental fitness for self-care is only now making it onto our radars. “In the last 30 years, physical fitness has become fixed in our consciousness,” he says. “In future, we will see people going to brain centres to give their brain a workout. It will be commonplace, a normal part of keeping ourselves healthy and aging well.” Like going to the gym, mental workouts could, and likely do, contribute to a longer, healthier and more productive life. [pagebreak] Small specializes in teaching speed read­ing and study skills but also offers thought-provoking corporate seminars such as “Laughing Matters,” “The Business of Learning,” “Brain Sell,” “Making Con­nections” and “Brain Boosters.” He speaks across the globe, and more than 16,000 people subscribe to his free Brain Bulletin e-newsletter. Small says most of us don’t know much about our brains or how to keep them healthy and working efficiently. “But we do know that having an environment that’s mentally stimulating is incredibly important to the aging brain.” Small says people attending his sessions often feel overwhelmed at work and need help with retention and performance. He teaches practical skills, such as how to increase reading speed and reorganize incoming information. Business Objects SA is a believer. Earlier this year, the Vancouver software developer (recently snapped up by German business software maker SAP AG), with a workforce of 1,550 mostly thirtysomethings, hired Small to boost the brainpower of a group of senior managers. “They were absolutely fascinated,” says HR manager Rachel Walter. “He taught them brain-fitness skills they could use both at work and at home.” Business Objects is no slouch when it comes to giving its techie workforce creative tools to improve their working lives. It offers on-site de-stressors such as a nap room (accessible on company time), a playroom and a fitness facility, and offers a range of discounted R-and-R programs such as yoga, Pilates and massage. The nature and extent of any link between the gradual weakening of mental capacity that awaits most of us and degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s is still unclear. Nevertheless, a lot can be learned about maximizing your mental health now and as you age by talking to medical experts who specialize in age-related brain diseases. Max Cynader has been at the forefront of international brain research for 42 years. He works hard to attract some of the world’s brightest scientific brains to Vancouver, where they join a local team of engineers, molecular biologists, computer experts, scientists and physicians working frantically to find out what causes brain diseases and conditions and how best to treat, cure and prevent them. The more than 190 investigators headquartered at the UBC Hospital site and in university labs and hospitals around the province are focusing on six key areas: neurodegenerative diseases (such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s), multiple sclerosis, mental illness, brain trauma, stroke and vision. They’re supported by experts in the field of brain imaging and genomics, the mushrooming branch of science that aims to decipher our individual genetic building blocks. Cynader, a master of the aphorism, loves to talk about aging because it piques the layperson’s interest in broader neuroscience research. His job is to simplify the complex world of the lab-bound boffin and speak passionately for patients who suffer from any of the 600 known disorders of the brain and nervous system. It’s essential when trying to corral funding for a body part that has traditionally lost out on the funding front to finding a cure for cancer or halting the spread of HIV/AIDS. Today his job is a little easier because the field of brain research is exploding. Ninety per cent of what scientists know about the delicate three-pound organ between our ears has been discovered in the past 10 years, he says. In Vancouver, as in other international centres, medical miracles and baby biotechs are incubating in research labs, with potential for all sorts of clinical applications in the not-too-distant future. It’s no wonder that researchers like Cynader are excited; they are closing in on revolutionary new treatments for diseases and conditions affecting millions. People with money and clout, especially age-phobic boomers, are beginning to take note and open their wallets. In an almost perfect storm, a significant global population shift has added yet another layer of urgency to brain research focused on longevity. “Canada, like many countries, is facing a huge demographic problem,” says Cynader. “We’re on our way to doubling the number of seniors in the next 15 years, which will place our health-care system under extraordinary pressure and leave a huge gap in our workforce. How do we manage this enormous loss of cortical horsepower? Increase the age at which people collect their pensions? Do away with mandatory retirement everywhere? Support part-time work? None of that will solve our country’s looming economic problems unless we figure out how to help people age better.” While we wait for answers to successful aging that may soon be offered by science, Cynader offers some pithy advice on how to grow old well: Pick good parents, because 40 to 50 per cent of our longevity is coded in our genes. Become rich, “preferably very rich, because the rich are less likely to suffer from chronic stress that annihilates brain cells.” Eat less, because studies in rats show we can live 10 to 40 per cent longer if we reduce our intake by 10 to 40 per cent. Engage in a moderate amount of exercise and stay socially and emotionally connected. According to Howard Feldman, director of the UBC Hospital Clinic for Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Disorders, we won’t necessarily become demented and forgetful after collecting our senior’s bus passes. He says 75 per cent of Canadians over age 65 can expect to have a normal range of memory loss throughout their lives, 17 per cent will experience mild cognitive impairment and eight per cent will suffer from some form of dementia. (Of the 63,480 British Columbians who currently have dementia, 67 per cent have Alzheimer’s.) No matter what our age, Cynader shares this single sensible nugget on how to best protect ourselves from premature memory loss: “Have a good education and an interesting life, because there’s ample evidence that using our brain to its fullest protects it from wearing out.” Related Stories: Brain Busters: Five Commonly Held Myths about the Brain Ensuring Mental Health Go on, flex your noggin! We’ve put together a list of Brain Boosters for you to build brain muscle while on your next coffee break. Enjoy!