Let’s talk brains: We know perimenopause and menopause can impact our brains. Women report feeling mentally “foggy,” having trouble concentrating, struggling to find the right word or remember if they scheduled that dentist appointment. Like the zombies we feel we’ve become, we just want a fresh brain.

Fortunately, menopause foggy brain is largely temporary. In menopause, women do lose the neuro-protective effects of estrogen, but as our bodies adjust to decreased levels of hormones, so do our brains. However, post-menopause, we may now be into the age-related decline in cognition that affects both sexes.

So do we just resign ourselves to hiring a random teenager to program the DVR?

You can, if you want to. Or you can leverage your brain’s natural neuroplasticity, training your brain to make new connections when older ones fail. Hormones and 50th birthdays notwithstanding, you – yes, you – can program your own DVR.

What is brain neuroplasticity?

Roll up your sleeves, because it’s about to get all science-y up in here.

Research scientists Denise Park and Gérard Bischof define neuroplasticity as “the brain’s ability to increase capacity in response to sustained experience.” Because the human brain is “plastic,” it’s flexible enough to reorganize itself and form new neural connections.

Neuroplasticity typically comes up when the brain has suffered damage from, say, a stroke or accident. When part of the brain is damaged, the function it controls may be lost or impaired: the person may no longer be able to speak or they might lose the ability to walk. Neuroplasticity allows the brain to reroute the function to other, undamaged areas of the brain.

In fact, our brains are constantly reorganizing, like a computer defragmenting to make more space and increase efficiency. And we can take advantage of that fact, even when our brains aren’t damaged by anything more than age.

Why is it particularly important for women?

Hormonal brain fog is frustrating and annoying, and the impact on a woman’s self-confidence can have downstream effects on families and careers. Women are amazingly adept at dealing with the occasional inconveniences of our own reproductive systems – shall we name the ways we’ve discreetly carried a tampon into the ladies’? – but the stress of feeling foggy plus the stigma attached to talking about menopause in the workplace can take their toll over time.

Further, women are more at risk than men of developing Alzheimer’s disease and dementia: women over 65 stand a 1-in-6 chance of developing Alzheimer’s; for men, the risk is 1 in 11. It’s possible that training our brains early, well before the brain is significantly impaired, allows for a later onset of the disease. Like any muscle, the earlier we start strengthening, the more benefit we’ll see.

How do we maximize our brain’s natural neuroplasticity?

While there’s research still to be done to prove it, it does appear that making our brains work harder to learn new things and acquire new skills helps our brains stay plastic and flexible. Repeated demands allow new neural pathways to form. Here are some tips for putting your brain through its paces and supporting brain health in your everyday life.

  1. Do hard stuff. Do it over and over. I have a terrible sense of direction and rely on Waze and similar apps to get me from A to B, even in my own city. This, according to research, is not a good idea. Forcing myself to think through the available choices and decide the best path is a good, challenging mental exercise which can be repeated. Once I’ve mastered the Waze app, on the other hand, there’s really no more learning to do. Take up a musical instrument, if that interests you. Learning a new language is a great idea – the complexities of grammar, the rote memorization of new vocabulary help remind your brain how to retain information and force you to access that new information over and over again.
  2. Play brain-training games. While the jury is definitely still out on how much you can gain from these games, games designed specifically for improved cognition do appear to “confer some benefit” (scientist speak for “don’t expect to turn into Einstein overnight”). The games should be fun, challenging, and allow you to graduate to harder challenges as you improve. While brain games may not make us smarter or delay onset of dementia, they may make learning new things easier, even as we age.
  3. Stay social. Do smart stuff with other smart people. You’ll enjoy it more, expand your horizons, and possibly protect your neuroplasticity in the process.
  4. Get plenty of Omegas 3 and 6. Fish, fish oil, seeds, and nuts all appear to play a role in protecting brain function. Fluid intelligence – our problem-solving smarts – and memory preservation are supported when we have balanced, abundant reserves of Omega fatty acids from our diet.
  5. Speaking of diet… Calorie restriction (cutting calories by 30%) and intermittent fasting have been shown to have some protective effects, though both should be done carefully and under the watchful eye of a medical professional.
  6. As Fezzik says in The Princess Bride, “Everybody move!” Exercise increases our levels of BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor), the compound that promotes the formation of new neural networks. Just how much exercise is yet to be determined, but combining exercise with Omega 3 and 6 supplements may boost the brain protection ever further.
  7. Mindfulness meditation, positivity, reduced stress, and love, sweet love are all good for our brains (and the rest of our bodies). All reduce internal inflammation which can deteriorate neural pathways. (Find out more about mindfulness meditation here.)
  8. Finally, sleep. Just as your muscles need rest between exertions, so does your gray matter. Chronic lack of sleep causes inflammation that can slow brain recovery and impact… well, pretty much everything: memory, metabolism, attention, function. But everything you don’t need your brain to do should be fine!

The brain’s ability to heal and learn may slow with age, but that doesn’t mean older adults are out of luck when it comes to learning new things. In fact, the very act of engaging in learning probably makes the next effort easier.

So find something that challenges you mentally and that you enjoy and will stick with. Do that challenging thing with friends, while eating nuts and exercising vigorously, and you may find your gorgeous, malleable, plastic brain is fuller, healthier, and happier than ever.