Author Archives: Dr. Paul Nussbaum

Retirement and Dementia

Dr. Paul Nussbaum, the Chief Scientific Officer at Fit Brains, shares his valuable thoughts on the topics of Retirement and Dementia:

It’s ironic how people work their whole lives toward the goal of retirement but when it does come, many suffer anxiety and depression towards the idea of having nothing to think about or do.

For many years I have spoken and written about my resistance to “retirement” the way the policy and concept is positioned and treated in the United States. It is true that there may have been good intent with the idea of retirement, but my guess is that nobody considered the health implications for the brain. This becomes increasingly important when we know that a passive, isolated, lonely, and segregated brain will atrophy when we stop working.

Retirement certainly does not have to be a time of passivity. Indeed, many people at all ages retire to a different and even busier life than when they were employed. However, a recent study of nearly a half-million people by the French government’s health research agency found that people who delay retirement have less risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia.

It is believed work is related to physical activity, socialization, mental stimulation, all things known to be good for the brain and three of the five major pillars of Dr. Nussbaum’s Brain Health Lifestyle ® (see www.paulnussbaum.com)For each additional year of work, the risk of getting dementia is reduced by 3.2% according to the study.

The major finding is supportive of the “use it or lose it” theory and I will simply add to that by saying you should “use it in new and complex ways or lose it.”  The answer is not to delay retirement to have a healthy mind and fulfilling life, it is the importance of keeping your mind and body active even after retirement.  Keep a personally relevant reason for getting up each morning, and feel good about your daily contributions to those around you.

Strive to be relevant, useful, healthy, and active every day in your life.  For the days that aren’t as busy as others, you can still keep your mind active and stimulated with the Fit Brains Trainer app!

The Importance of Caring for Self

For nearly 15 years I have had the pleasure of working on a brain health lifestyle ® that includes five domains: (1) physical activity, (2) nutrition, (3) socialization, (4) spirituality, and (5) mental stimulation.  This lifestyle is underscored by a fundamental understanding that the human brain can be shaped for health and that what we do is very important to our overall emotional and cognitive wellbeing.

Over the 15 years, I have thought about what my brain health lifestyle ® really is tapping into. I believe the most basic and critically important aspect of initiating a brain health lifestyle is the power of paying attention to oneself, taking the time to understand that you have the power to shape your life for quality and balance.

Lifestyle is an established pathway to health and wellbeing. The paradox is that even though most people know and believe a healthy lifestyle is important, there is very low compliance to following such a healthy lifestyle. The question is why do we not do what we know is good for us? After speaking to nearly 60,000 people over the past decade, I believe compliance with a healthy lifestyle will increase if first, people are educated on why they should follow such a lifestyle and second, the change in behavior must be seen as personal!

I believe in educating everyone on the connection between lifestyle and the impact on the brain. Once somebody understands how the brain reacts to your own behavior there is a type of “light bulb” that goes off and things start to make sense. Often, we are simply told what to do and we are not provided with the why behind it. Also, the message can be powerful if it is personal and not perceived as academic or clinical.

The most critical factor in leading a consistent brain health lifestyle ® is your ability to care for yourself, to give yourself the necessary time every day to understand your emotional, cognitive, and relational balance. By checking in and knowing yourself, you will have the ability to make small changes to get back into balance and achieve real brain health and wellness.

 

 

Helping Teachers Understand Brain and Behavior

I wrote a short piece many years ago describing my ideas of the school really being a brain health center. I also wrote about learning providing a type of “vaccine” for the brain to help fight off disease. I still believe in these ideas and over the past 10 years research has discovered findings on the human brain that support such speculation.

President Obama has initiated with politicians on both sides of the aisle a brain- mapping program that will allocate funds from the 2014 budget for exploration of the human brain. There is another legislative idea being promoted that will allocate money for educating our teachers about mental health and behavior in their students.

The latter is certainly guided by the recent school shooting tragedy, but such initiatives provide a wonderful opportunity for a basic foundational understanding of the human brain and behavior to be taught to all those who teach and work in our schools. Such an understanding can have a profound impact on teacher-student relations, teaching methodology, identification of potential behavioral risk factors, amelioration of problems before they escalate, and a deeper understanding of how environment can shape the brain.

I have had the great pleasure of working with many schools and districts across the United States teaching about the human brain and brining a “brain healthy culture” to the school. In essence, helping to turn the school into a Brain Health Environment. There are so many basic things we can do to facilitate such an environment and the students and teachers get motivated and excited by such innovation.

I hope to be more involved with schools across the United States and abroad to bring a basic understanding of the human brain and a brain health culture to the schools. It is important that we apply the research findings of the human brain to our classrooms and schools so that we not only can help in the area of mental illness, but that we nurture all brains to be the best they can be!

 

 

Concussion and Sports

By now most of you have heard, seen, read, or experienced personally or in the family the head injury we clinically refer to as concussion. A concussion is generally defined as an injury to the brain that can result in temporary loss of normal brain function. Such functions can include orientation, alertness, judgment, information processing, processing speed, attention and memory. Concussions can, but do not need to involve a loss of consciousness.

Some estimates are that more than 300,000 sports-related concussions occur annually in the United States, and that there is a 19% per year of play likelihood of sustaining a concussion. High school sports yield about 60,000 concussions each year and among college players 34% have had one concussion and 20% multiple concussions. Suffering one concussion increases the risk for that person to incur a second concussion and this is particularly true for football.

Estimates are that between four and twenty percent of college and high school football players will sustain a brain injury over the course of the season. Nearly 60% of college soccer players reported symptoms of a concussion at least once during the season. Concussion rates are comparable for soccer and football. Concussions also occur in non-sport activities such as automobile, biking, sledding, and falls around the home.

Implications for Health

There is no good reason to strike your head and brain. That is a simple, yet important statement for any person at any age. A concussion not only leads to a higher risk for another concussion, it also correlates with depression, impulsivity, and even dementia later in life. We are bombarded now with reports of football players suffering dementia from sustained head injuries clinically referred to as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

On a practical level, if your brain is damaged your ability to conduct basic daily activities such as driving, school work, sports, employment, and relationships may be limited. Our life as we had known it will likely be changed and the more severe the brain injury or concussion, the more limited we will be. This is devastating at any age, but it is particularly unfortunate for young persons who may not have even entered the work force yet.

Practical Ideas to Consider:

I am the father of three boys and I was raised and live in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania where football is second only to God! I want to provide you this context because the following ideas are not only difficult for me to express, they will be difficult for many to process. However, I work as a neuropsychologist and after 20 or more years of witnessing the consequences of brain injury I cannot be quiet:

  1. Communities should agree (not be legislated) to remove all tackle football for any child below the 11th grade. It is one thing to have ongoing discussions about the NFL and concussion, it is something completely different for our support of 6 and 7 year-olds dressing up with helmets and being instructed to “hit hard.” I refer to this as “organized stupidity.”
  2. All elementary schools should agree to provide curriculum on the basics of the human brain, how to keep it healthy, and what is not good for the brain.
  3. For those children who wish to play football prior to the 11th grade, flag football should be used.
  4. For those in the 11th grade who wish to play HS football, all schools should seek training and consultation of proper methods of play from college and professional coaches.
  5. All players in all sports, beginning at early ages, should undergo baseline assessments for brain integrity (Impact Test). This will provide important data on that child if a head injury occurs. All players should also be informed of proper lifestyle to help boost the health of their brain (see www.paulnussbaum.com).
  6. For those players who do play tackle football in the 11th grade and later, advanced equipment should be used and severe penalties should be extended to those who strike the head.
  7. For all sports, proper headgear should be used. I encourage all soccer, baseball, hockey, biking, basketball, etc. athletes to use some form of protective headgear or headband prior to setting foot on the field. The same is probably true of gymnastics, cheerleaders, and dancers.

It is my opinion that we are a great nation that should be more enlightened than our behavior suggests at times. I am not a proponent of legislating behavior change. We still have our rights and anyone has the right to be stupid! However, I think communities across the world and within school districts can have reasonable discussions that foster policies intended to protect our brains, particularly our young brains!

Stress Damaging to the Brain

Following up on my previous blog on the brain and the importance of keeping peace and harmony in the brain is a new study that indicates stress can cause damage to the brain.

Living a stressful life has been found to atrophy the cortex of the brain, the critical part that processes information consciously. Stress also can cause damage in areas of the brain the regulate emotion.

A lead researcher with Yale University observed 100 healthy participants using MRI scans while they answered questions about potentially traumatic life events, including the loss of loved one, job or home. The authors found a direct relationship between the experience of stressful life events and structural changes in the brain. This supports other research on chronic stress and structural changes and functional changes, particularly memory function in the brain.

Overall, the growing body of research on the impact of stress on the body and brain demands we all take time to care for ourselves and create periods of the day that are stress free.

Harmony Between Limbic System and Frontal Lobe

We all know that feeling when things seem in sync, in harmony, and we are at peace. You may have heard the phrase “I am one with the world” that humans use to describe such inner balance. What a great feeling that is.

Unfortunately, we tend to live a fair amount of our lives out of balance as we chase the next, often small priority, task in our day. We live our lives with a sense of worry and chronic anxiety. Our bodies communicate such worry to us in the form of migraine headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, sleep disorder, irritability, ulcer and mood disorder.

The brain has two distinct, but integrated systems that facilitate such balance or imbalance. The first is known as the limbic system that provides our emotional being and serves as a type of “hot area of the brain.” This part of our brain can cause that inner sense of doom and gloom and set off the “fight or flight” reaction. It is called hot because of its emotionality that can also be impulsive and get us into some trouble in daily life.

The other brain region is the frontal lobe thought by some to be the cold analytic part of our being. This is the part of our being that helps to keep us socially graceful, rule abiding, and capable of conforming to civil order.

The goal in life is to balance these two regions, the hot limbic system with the cold analytic frontal lobe. Sometimes we are able to accomplish such a balance and integration and when this occurs we feel that inner sense of “oneness.” Crisis can integrate these regions quickly, which is why we tend to immediately prioritize those things that are most important in our lives and live in the moment during crisis. The goal needs to be to get to such integration without the crisis.

Some steps to consider include: (1) try to be in the moment and develop a consciousness about your inner balance; (2) are you approaching your day too emotional or too “hot” or are you “too cold” and overly analytic; (3) remind yourself of what is really important and what is not; (4) make an attempt to release those things that are not worthy of your energy or attention; (5) free up space and time in your life; (6) give things away; (7) be forgiving; (8) pray and meditate daily; (9) work on what your role and purpose is in life; (10) rely on love as the primary emotion and behavior.

These steps will set you on a path towards inner balance and to getting your limbic system happily integrated with your frontal lobe!

Latest on Omega-3 Supplements

You may have read or heard about the recent study and news that Omega-3 supplements have no significant effect on reducing cardiovascular or cerebrovascular disease. Findings were published in the September 12 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

A meta-analysis pooled from 20 randomized studies including more than 68,000 patients concluded that supplementation did not reduce the risks of all-cause mortality, cardiac death, sudden death, myocardial infarction or stroke.  The authors opined that the findings do not justify the use of Omega-3s as a structured intervention in everyday clinical practice or guidelines supporting daily Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid administration.

Authors and clinicians suggest that even though supplements may not reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, there is evidence they help reduce triglyceride cholesterol levels. Clinicians also indicate it is important we maintain a plant-based diet with Omega-3 rich fatty fish as part of a heart-healthy Mediterranean-like dietary strategy that hold benefits most likely beyond individual supplements.

It is important to differentiate disease prevention from health promotion. Because something does not prevent a disease does not mean it is not healthy. Omega-3s in the form of food consumption remains health promoting. Even supplements continue to help with unhealthy cholesterol reduction. We should engage in health promoting behaviors including diet, exercise, and stress reduction even if such behaviors do not prevent disease.