The Washington Post reported on a recent study out of the National Institute of Mental Health. The study found that different brain areas are activated when a person moves up or down in social status or sees people who are socially superior or inferior. The brain seemed to activate in a similar manner to winning money.
The scientists indicate that our position in social hierarchies affects motivation as well as physical and mental health. Past research has supported the relationship between social rank and health. For example, persons with a lower social status had a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease and to die early. Psychological effects to include loss of control over one’s environment may be one trigger for the relationship to poor health.
The brain seems to have a hard wiring for hierarchical information and that this information is important to us. Our desire to compete, play to win, and to be motivated are directly linked to brain circuitry.
This most likely explains our civilization’s interest in sports, gaming, and competition. Our own individual struggle to reach our specific potential in areas of school, work, or skill development also fit into this model. It may not be such a stretch to suggest that our drive to personal health, including brain health involves such brain circuitry and that computerized mental exercises that provide explicit feedback on our performance is one tangible example of competitive health behavior.
Brain health is now a popular practice with more attention being drawn to this part of our being everyday. Dr. Nussbaum has proposed a 5 factor lifestyle to promote brain health to include (1) physical activity, (2) mental stimulation (e.g. brain games), (3) socialization, (4) spirituality, and (4) nutrition. While each of these factors has research-based activities that demonstrate a relationship to reduced risk of dementia, there has not been a study that measures the effect of all factors integrated into a comprehensive program.
Teaming with Emeritus Assisted Living, Dr. Nussbaum completed a six week pilot investigation on the effects of his brain health lifestyle on memory, mood, medical measures such as cholesterol, and quality of life. Twelve independent living and healthy adults (mean age 84) took part in the six week study and were compared to a control group of nine older adults. The two groups did not differ on age, education or other demographic variables. No study participants had dementia, psychiatric illness, or substance abuse.
Study participants completed one research based activity in each of the four factors on a daily basis and they consumed a special brain health diet for the nutrition factor. Controls simply lived their life with the same routine. Results include a significant improvement in delayed recall (20-25 minutes delay), reduced weight, enhanced quality of life as measured by self-report and staff based observations, and general knowledge of the human brain and brain health.
This is one of the first studies to look at the effects of a comprehensive lifestyle approach on brain health.
The NY Times recently reported on a new study that showed it is possible to improve brainpower. The study demonstrated that training the brain in particular cognitive or thinking processes actually help to improve those particular processes. This should make sense as the brain is a dynamic system that will respond to environmental input.
The resistance to such belief lies in the long held and erroneous position that the human brain is a rigid and fixed system that is somehow set by age five! We now know the human brain has “plasticity” and can be shaped across the lifespan. In fact, your brain does not know how old it is, it simply wants to be stimulated.
New research from the University of Michigan supports the power of brain fitness (e.g. brain games) on the ability of the brain to acquire new information. Our ability to learn new information historically has been labeled “fluid intelligence.” This tends to be information we did not acquire in school and that we have no background exposure. In contrast, information acquired in school that is over learned is referred to as “crystallized intelligence.”
Researchers found that new learning (fluid intelligence) increased with increased exposure to the training stimuli. They asserted that fluid intelligence can increase with appropriate training. They are not sure how long the gains will last after training stops, but gains are made with intervals of 8 to 19 days of training for 30 minutes a day.
While research is catching up on what probably is a very practical and basic reality: the human brain, like many of our systems is influenced by environmental input. In the case of the brain the stimuli tends to be information that is processed from the outside world. Repetitive brain exercise (e.g. brain games) will have an outcome and it is reasonable to think that it will be positive with regard to learning. And yes, there will also be a neurostructural and neurochemical change as well.
German scientists have found success in reversing the plaque buildup in brains of mice. The plaque deposits are one of the hallmark features of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and this finding may lead to viable treatments for humans.
The compound reportedly effectively blocks an enzyme responsible for development of the plaque. The compound attaches itself at the precise site on the cell wall where the toxic action occurs.
When injected directly into the brains of mice, scientists indicate the compound works well. The next step is to determine if the compound can cross the blood brain barrier, the protective shield around the brain. Animal tests have begun to determine if medicines given by mouth or injection have the high rate of efficacy as direct injection into the brain where there was a 50% reduction in plaque formation within four hours. Scientists believe that if the testing on animals goes well a human version could be available in five to ten years.
We have known for some time that some persons do not manifest the clinical pathology of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) even though their brains have the hallmark plaques and tangles at autopsy. How this occurs is still not known, but one theory is that those persons who are able to fight the clinical aspects of the disease off may have more brain reserve, developed over the course of their lifetime. It is further thought that particular lifestyle factors such as exposure to enriched, novel and complex environments can help to build reserve.
A new study indicates that the size of the hippocampus, the structures that lie deep in the temporal lobe and help to form new memories and learning, may be important. Researchers at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland found that those persons who avoided dementia had larger hippocampi relative to those who did not avoid the manifestation of the disease. Both groups had the pathologic markers of AD.
Interestingly, the researchers did not find any difference in the two groups on education level or socioeconomic status. However, the study did not explore what the person did in their lifetime, the type of activities he or she pursued, or the quality of learning after graduation. While education level has correlated with reduction in the risk of dementia in other studies, the hippocampus may be stimulated by much more than formal education.
This is most likely the case given the research in 1998 that found the human hippocampus can generate new brain cells. Our goal should be to grow larger hippocampi through enriched environments across our lifetime as a health promoting behavior (see Dr. Nussbaum’s brain health lifestyle www.paulnussbaum.com). In this case, it is to potentially delay onset of dementia.
Two recent studies have further underscored my long held belief that many diseases, including those of the brain, actually begin early in life, perhaps even in childhood. The idea that a disease is proactive demands that we are adopt an equally proactive healthy lifestyle.
One study found that high cholesterol levels in the 40s may raise the chance of developing Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) decades later. The findings presented at the American Academy of Neurology in Chicago studied over 9,000 people in California and found that those with high cholesterol levels between the ages of 40 and 45 were about 50 percent more likely than those with low cholesterol to later develop AD.
Another study from Sweden found those with diabetes in midlife are 1.5 times more likely to develop AD later in life. This study followed over 2000 men for 32 years and while other risk factors for AD were found, the most significant was low insulin secretion in midlife.
These studies and others indicate the lifelong development of AD and that we really should not consider this disease a late life disorder. The studies also underscore our need to develop interventions much earlier in life and to adopt a brain healthy lifestyle (e.g. brain fitness) regardless. Such a lifestyle should be a national priority and begin in early childhood if not earlier.