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Instructor Spotlight - Melissa Wolak

We recently spoke with Melissa Wolak, who teaches "Optimizing Brain Health, Function and Memory" and "New and Simple Ways to Exercise Your Brain."

Melissa-Hundley-Wolak-2.jpgMelissa, tell us about your background:
I have worked as a Speech-Language Pathologist for the past 18 years, since earning my Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Communication Science Disorders. I love my job treating clients with neurological or “brain” changes caused by injury, disease, life changes and aging. I specialize in the treatment of cognitive and communication disorders at Boulder Community Health and in my private practice. Recent research on the brain intrigues me. It emphasizes the importance of healthy lifestyle habits and their positive effects on memory, mental clarity, efficiency and happiness. Therefore, I broadened my scope and training to include a proactive, preventative care model. My goal is to educate others to invest in their brain health now, which will improve their quality of life, resiliency and well-being into the future.

There is a lot of talk these days about neuroplasticity. What does that mean?
“Neuroplasticity” means that the brain heals and adapts when it experiences damage or ages. It can create new neural pathways as you learn novel information and make changes in your environment. Ultimately, this is good news and a positive area of research. The brain makes new connections. It is resilient. We want to maximize our “neuroplasticity” with stimulation to the brain by participating in a variety of activities. For example, try a different hike or exercise class, take up a new hobby, join a book club, and spend time with people you find fun and interesting.
You take a very holistic approach in this class. What are some of the subjects that you discuss?
We discuss and learn basic brain anatomy and function, how the memory works and strategies to improve it, nutrition to promote cognitive function, what happens as our brains and bodies age, and simple lifestyle changes that contribute to increased wellness, happiness and brain health. It is an interactive class that includes brain "exercises."
How important is sleep to brain health and memory?
Sleep is extremely important for multiple reasons. While we sleep, we integrate new information learned during the day. The information is then consolidated or filed into long-term storage to retrieve and use at a later time. Sleep is when we develop neural pathways and when cell regeneration is completed. After missing one night of sleep, you may notice that you have difficulty finding words, feel a “brain fog,” process information slower, or feel less efficient. If we do not obtain the recommended amount of sleep (7-9 hours/night for adults) or quality sleep over a long period of time, we are gradually affecting our cognitive abilities and health.
brain.jpgCan you give an example of a memory strategy that people can incorporate into their daily lives?
Truly, I believe one of the most important strategies for memory is to make the intention to focus on a specific task and/or conversation. What does this look like? We pause, take 1-3 diaphragmatic breaths (belly breaths), consciously choose our focus and move forward. Attention is essential and the first step in the memory process.
Can small changes make a difference in healthy brain function as we age?
Definitely! Research supports that healthy lifestyle changes (at any age) will improve your quality of life. There are many options and ways to support your brain health, including:
  • Learn a new skill, song or driving route
  • Exercise consistently
  • Eat a more nutritious diet
  • Start a mindfulness practice
In the class, we will discuss positive lifestyle changes in detail. I believe the key is to be patient with yourself as you consciously choose to make small changes and strive to do your best each day.