In reality, blogging continues to play a pretty central role in my life. I have been blogging now, week-in, week-out, since May of 2005. Writing and editing each post consumes quite a number of hours each week, let alone the time it takes to think what to write about and how to best frame the subject. Much to my surprise, despite the time and effort it takes to produce each blog, I have not missed a week yet since I started doing them. Several times I have come close to finally skipping a week when I am very busy. Other times, especially when I am having a particularly tough time with a subject, I wonder why I am subjecting myself to such seemingly unnecessary anguish.
The truth is that few will care or even notice if I miss a week now and then. So, why then am I so disciplined about my blogs? Is this perhaps a manifestation of a somewhat obsessive-compulsive personality? Is it a way of bringing a certain order to my life? A weekly blog certainly adds structure to my life, especially now that I am no longer working full time for one company and live a somewhat distributed life, working with several different private sector and academic institutions.
Is there any other kind of activity that, like blogging, I engage in with near-religious regularity even though no one else cares that I do so? Yes, there is one other such activity in my life - physical exercise.
I started exercising regularly while living in Manhattan around 1980. One of the pleasure of living there was being able to go jogging in Central Park, along with what seemed like a large fraction of the city’s population. After we moved out of New York in 1991, I continued jogging, albeit under more solitary circumstances.
About twelve years ago my knees started giving me trouble when running on hard surfaces like asphalt. I then discovered that jogging on a treadmill did not bother my knees, so I was able to continue exercising. A few years later, even running on the treadmill was hurting my knees, so I switched to using an elliptical machine as well as walking fast on an inclined treadmill. In addition, I have included weight training in my exercise regime.
So, for almost thirty years now, I have been been exercising five days a week on average. Questions similar to the ones I asked above about blogging could be asked about my disciplined approach to exercising. However, few would view my physical exercise regime as compulsive or driven by a need to add structure to my life. The link between exercise and good health has by now been well established in study after study.Most people would say that regular exercise is just prudent behavior on my part, especially at my age. “Regular exercise is a critical part of staying healthy. People who are active live longer and feel better. Exercise can help you maintain a healthy weight. It can delay or prevent diabetes, some cancers and heart problems.” In addition to helping improve our physical health, exercise also improves our mental health and helps prevent or reduce depression.
Recently, I have been wondering if blogging has now similarly become a kind of mental exercise for my brain. This would explain why I treat my weekly blogging with the same kind of discipline as I do my near-daily physical exercise. After all, I would expect that my aging brain needs at least as much care as my aging body.
As I typically do when researching a new subject, I went to the Web, and found lots of material on brain health. I particularly liked the brain health web site of the Alzheimer’s Association. It is one of the most comprehensive and easy to read, as well as being careful to base their materials on the best available scientific evidence. It writes:“When people think about staying fit, they generally think from the neck down. But the health of your brain plays a critical role in almost everything you do: thinking, feeling, remembering, working, and playing - even sleeping. The good news is that we now know there’s a lot you can do to help keep your brain healthier as you age. These steps might also reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia. Simple lifestyle modifications also would have an enormous impact on our nation's public health and the cost of healthcare.”
It then groups its recommendations for a healthy brain lifestyle into four main areas: physical activity; nutrition; socialization; and mental stimulation. Let me say a few words about each.
The connection between physical exercise and brain health is probably the best understood. About a quarter of the blood generated by each heart beat goes to the brain. Physical exercise helps maintain good blood flow to the brain, encourage the formation of new brain cells, and significantly reduce the risk of heart attack, diabetes and strokes. Physical activity also helps in the release of endorphins in the brain, which is associated with feelings of well being and reduced depression. Aerobic exercise in particular improves the flow of oxygen to the brain, which generally benefits brain functions and reduce brain cell loss as we age.
A lot of research is underway to better understand the connection between diet and brain health. There is evidence that the same diet guidelines for reducing the risk of heart attack and diabetes apply to maintaining healthy brain functions, including carefully managing body weight, cholesterol and blood pressure. In addition, certain foods have been shown to not only reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, but also appear to protect brain cells. They include fruits, vegetables and nuts with high levels of antioxidants and cold water fish, like salmon, containing high levels of omega-3 fatty acids.
Research also indicates that social interactions are important to a healthy brain lifestyle: “A recent study reported that leisure activities that combine physical, mental and social activity are the most likely to prevent dementia. In the study of 800 men and women aged 75 and older, those who were more physically active, more mentally active or more socially engaged had a lower risk for developing dementia. And those who combined these activities did even better. Other research found that sports, cultural activities, emotional support and close personal relationships together appear to have a protective effect against dementia.”
While the scientific link between mental stimulation and brain health is not that well understood, just about everything I read on the subject urges people to stay mentally active. They all generally conclude that an active brain may help build its reserves of brain cells and connections, and perhaps generate new ones. I am convinced that future advances in functional magnetic resonance imaging and similar tools will validate these preliminary, more anecdotal findings.
The Franklin Institute Resources for Science Learning observes that: “Mental stimulation improves brain function and actually protects against cognitive decline, as does physical exercise. The human brain is able to continually adapt and rewire itself. Even in old age, it can grow new neurons. Severe mental decline is usually caused by disease, whereas most age-related losses in memory or motor skills simply result from inactivity and a lack of mental exercise and stimulation. In other words, use it or lose it.”
Another good source of information is Dr. Paul Nussbaum, a clinical neuropsychologist at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, and a prolific writer and speaker on brain health. He is also a very strong advocate for the power of mental stimulation. Among his recommendations for exercising our brains are any activities that present us with novel and complex challenges, including reading and writing.
From everything I have read, it is reasonable to view my blogging as a form of mental exercise that will hopefully help keep my brain as healthy as possible for as long as possible. The fact that it is at times frustrating and I'd rather be doing almost anything else is perhaps a sign that I am properly pushing my mental faculties.After all, while I generally enjoy my physical exercise, every so often I have to remind myself that I am not doing it just for fun, but because it is supposed to be good for me. I do hope that years from now, I will be able to convincingly say that blogging turned out to be good for my general mental health, and all this time, energy and even pain have been well worth it.