Tracy Dignum wants you to know that she’s not a neurologist. What she is, however, is a thorough and talented researcher, and a trained and experienced physiotherapist with 20 years of clinical experience in orthopedics, neurology, and cardiorespiratory ICU care. She’s also an instructor in Capilano University’s Rehabilitation Assistant program, where she specializes in gerontology, exercise and anatomy. More recently, however, Tracy has added brain health to her list of professional interests.
While the brain is indeed part of the anatomy, Tracy’s fascination with it didn’t start with her career in medicine. It started with her students.
Many of the classes that Tracy teaches at Cap require the memorization of hundreds of muscle names, and she noticed that some students were having much more difficulty with this than others. Even those who did remember the information, often seemed to be just “spitting it back out” on tests.
“Are students really retaining any of this?” she began to ask herself.
Putting her research skills to work, Tracy set out to learn how the brain actually retains information. What she found out has not only changed the way she teaches her students, but also how she plays with her kids, uses her phone, spends her spare time and has even led to graduate work at UBC’s Centre for Brain Health.
After immersing herself in the literature, Tracy soon learned that many of the issues surrounding cognitive decline in older adults also affect young people, as the human brain isn’t fully developed until age 25.
The prefrontal cortex, or, “the brain under your forehead,” as Tracy calls it, is what commands short term and working memory. It helps you focus your attention, set goals, delay gratification and avoid risks. In aging adults, it tends to deteriorate, while in younger students, it’s not yet optimal. “Cap students are well ahead of teenagers, but it’s still a work in progress,” says Tracy.
Now, if you’re talking about the prefrontal cortex, your next topic has to be the hippocampus. That’s the area deep inside your brain that files away long-term memory, and according to Tracy, it’s not a big fan of student life. Short-term stress reduces its function while long-term stress shrinks it altogether by working other parts of the brain (namely the amygdala) too hard.
Fortunately, there is plenty of research out there focused on improving the function of these brain areas, and some of the most effective studies Tracy has found involve the concept of mindfulness. “It’s not just mindful meditation, but mindful living,” she says. “Living in the present moment is so healthy for the brain, but technology is making it really hard for us.”
Tracy says that mindful practices can be as simple as doing yoga, going for a walk in nature or putting your phone away for a few hours a day. Other lifestyle measures for a healthy brain include eating low glycemic foods, avoiding concussions (ahem, athletes!) staying active socially and—a big one—getting enough sleep.
“I know students think that staying up late and cramming is going to be better than going to bed, but there is so much grounded evidence that you should go to bed,” says Tracy. “Just let your prefrontal cortex and your hippocampus talk to each other all night long, and you will be much more likely to remember the answers!”
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