Use Your Brain or Lose it

When it comes to the brain, it’s use it or lose it. And no one knows this better than Ruth Curran.

It’s the luck of the draw, really. One minute you’re driving down a street heading for work and the next, you’re in intensive care unit with a traumatic brain injury. One day your father seems perfectly normal and the next, he introduces you as his son. You’re his daughter.

Brain health is something I never considered until my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, an affliction that is top of mind for the Boomer cohort. That introduction anecdote? It happened to me. And like many Boomers, I’m concerned about my own brain health. The brain is our body’s command center and when it’s impaired, it affects everything we do, even breathing.

There’s no effective treatment or cure for Alzheimer’s yet, but—as we have learned from science and the many physical therapists who work with brain-injured patients, we may be able to stave off some of the worst of it by strategically using our brains. Because when it comes to the brain, it’s use it or lose it. And no one knows this better than Ruth Curran.

A decade ago, Curran, who has a master’s degree in psychology, suffered a traumatic brain injury during an automobile accident. What she learned about the brain and its power to recover can be put to use by anyone with any kind of brain deficit or cognitive impairment, and now can be. Her book Being Brain Healthy ( is out and it’s full of practical advice and simple brain-activating exercises that anyone can do to keep sharp.

Tune into all your senses every day, she advises. Our brains are both fueled and hindered by what we do every day. Being brain healthy means doing more of the things that add color and richness to life—amplifying them, so that we tune into the entire sensory experience. Here’s an example adapted from her book: Pick up a random item on your desk, perhaps a letter opener. Take the last letter of the name, “r,” and think of five things that begin with that letter: rice, raisins, rocks, robin, rack.

What category does it belong to? Office supplies. What other office supplies can you name? How else can a pen be used? These simple exercises that engage our brains can be done any time by anyone. They activate and strengthen the areas of the brain that process information. An active brain is a healthier brain, she points out. Just as we work out our physical body, we work on brain fitness. Her blog has dozens of fun games and exercises that double as brain activators, working to strengthen memory, attention and executive functioning.

Maybe you’ve noticed a disturbing personality change in a parent with Alzheimer’s or a friend who’s had a traumatic brain injury. It’s common. How does Curran advise we help? Drop all assumptions and preconceived notions about how that person ‘should’ be or was. Slow down, listen and watch closely and adapt to where they are at, because it is easier for you to adapt than for them to.

She points out that the ability to process information changes as the brain changes, so you may get unexpected responses to your questions. Think about how frustrating it is for you to communicate with them, then try to imagine how frustrating it is for them to be unable to formulate the right words or thoughts. She speaks from experience: that was her situation before she worked her way back using the techniques she writes about in her book. Most of all, find a way to enjoy the time you have with your loved one. She’s right. Love is a pretty good treatment for just about anything.