Category Archives: Brain & Health News

Love and the Brain

A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found a strong relationship between maternal support and nurturing in early childhood and the size of the hippocampus by school age. This is particularly interesting since so much recent study has focused on the power of the environment in shaping the structure and the function of the brain.

Children who obtain loving and nurturing care from their parents and particularly their mother (per this study) demonstrate larger hippocampal volume years later. The hippocampus is a structure in our brains critical for new learning and for processing stressful input. Chronic stress has been shown to negatively impact the structure and function of the hippocampus. This is why persons with chronic anxiety have memory problems.

On the positive side, a larger hippocampus not only helps us cope more effectively with daily stress, it also relates to reduced risk of mental illness and even to reduced risk of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease. Once again, early life interventions, in this case understanding the importance of loving our children, can have lifelong health benefits.

We need to continue to appreciate and respect the enormous import that factors such as attitude, positive spirit, faith, and love have on our health and wellbeing. These things do not come in a pill or liquid, but they represent the best medicine we have and we should all prescribe ourselves a daily dose.

Natural Light: Positive Effects on the Brain and Health

I have been studying research in the area of natural light and its interaction on the human brain. An important point to make is that appropriate exposure to natural light has positive effects on our circadian rhythm and in turn promotes many aspects of health.

We evolved from exposure to natural day lighting. The sun provides a specific wavelength (blue range) in the early morning that lasts until early afternoon. At that point a different light wavelength is produced (red to orange range). We recently discovered that the retina has a specific photoreceptor that detects light and sends it to a special part of the brain known as the suprachiasm, located near the hypothalamus. Once the suprachiasm is triggered, it sets off the hypothalamus, the master gland that in turn triggers the pituitary, thyroid, and adrenal glands of the brain and body. The hormonal reaction to light is what causes and promotes the diverse actions of the body and health.

The blue range of light helps our bodies become aroused, alert, attentive and focused. As the day proceeds and we enter the afternoon when the blue range of light shifts to the red/orange range our bodies begin the process of slowing and ultimately sleeping. Our body slows in blood pressure and we enter the four stages of sleep including deep sleep. Melatonin is produced and growth hormones are triggered.

The circadian rhythm (means approximately a day) is critically important to our health as it has effects on our immune system, ability to fight off disease, hunger and obesity, blood pressure, and cognition. It controls our sleep wake cycle so important for brain function and body regulation.

I have learned that there are design lighting systems that help to promote exposure to natural light, to help set the circadian rhythm, and to promote human performance in the workplace and school. Natural lighting via design lighting systems can also help older adults residing in assisted living or long-term care facilities. Older adults experience changes in their sleep wake cycles and this gets exacerbated with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Studies support increased school performance by students, and reduced agitation and increased sleep for older adults who reside or study in environments with the natural day lighting systems.

Email or call me if you work in a school district, an assisted living facility, or other building and have interest in enhancing human behavior and saving money from the energy efficiencies of natural day lighting systems.

Federal Government and Alzheimer’s Disease

I read with great interest that the United States federal government is considering a plan that provides effective treatments for Alzheimer’s disease by 2025. Such a national strategy is desperately needed and long overdue. It is well known that Alzheimer’s disease, the leading cause of progressive dementia, will increase significantly from the 5.4 million persons affected today to over 15 million by the middle of this century.

The nation already expends nearly 200 billion dollars annually in the care of those with Alzheimer’s disease and there are nearly 15 million caregivers who are directly or indirectly affected by the disease. Indeed, our entire society is affected and the national strategy is an important step. Former Speaker Gingrich has talked openly about the need for the neurosciences to be a major source of innovation for the health of the brain and I hope other politicians help to make this a reality. The Obama Administration is developing the first National Alzheimer’s Plan to address the medical and social problems of dementia. This plan is not just for treatment, but also for better daily care for dementia patients and their caregivers.

Among the major goals of the plan are to:

  1. Begin a national public awareness campaign of dementia’s early-warning signs to improve early diagnosis.
  2. Give primary care doctors the tools assess signs of dementia as part of Medicare’s annual checkup.
  3. Have caregiver’s physical and mental health regularly checked.
  4. Improve care planning and training for families, so they know what resources are available for their loved one and for themselves.

These are important and necessary goals for inclusion in any national plan. However, they are not comprehensive which is what is needed. Some critics of the plan argue that the government is not being bold enough. My suggestions for a more comprehensive plan would include the following additional goals:

  1. Teach the basics of the human brain to every middle school student in order to develop personal investment in the workings of the brain and how to keep the brain healthy.
  2. Promote and prioritize a brain health lifestyle ® using the latest research on what we can do individually and as a society to live a proactive and lifelong lifestyle that promotes the health of the brain.
  3. Understand that diseases the manifest late in life begin early in life. We need to consider early nonmedical interventions such as education, diet, spirituality, mental stimulation, and socialization tools that begin when a baby is developing in the womb.
  4. Create tax benefits for families who care for their loved ones or pay for others to care for them in the person’s home.
  5. Create a chronic care system for older adults that understands chronic care is not the same as acute care and that hospitals are actually not a healthy place for older adults to be admitted.
  6. Incentive medical doctors and other health care professionals to become specialized in geriatrics and to promote “primary care status” to the geriatrician.
  7. Include brain health lifestyle ® within every wellness program and incentive all persons to live such a lifestyle.
  8. Develop annual standardized assessments for persons to undergo to measure the health and functioning of their brain. The brain should be treated as a priority rather than continue to be neglected in our culture.
  9. Revise the antiquated and outdated nursing home model of care.
  10. Increase the funding for dementia care, lifestyle approach, and caregiver programs sufficient to achieve success much earlier than 2025.

Christmas, the Holiday Season, and World Peace

It is too easy to turn the television or internet on and witness humans across the globe behaving with violence and harm towards others. This stands in direct contradiction to what Christmas and the Holiday season represents. It is hard to imagine what drives someone or a group of people to attack others. Peace is a noble goal worth pursuing and Peace on Earth is what Christmas and the Holiday season are about.

Peace begins internally by cleaning out our own ill will and negativity. We can literally engage in mental exercises by thinking positive thoughts and feeling positive emotions. This stimulates the left frontal region of our brain and can leave us feeling balanced and peaceful. We can then work with others to try and sway their thinking and behavior towards unity and away from conflict. War, death, and violence are no recipe for progress of the human race.

This is a special week for many across the planet, one that provides the ingredients of love, joy, and peace that can unite us. We are one race and we live on one planet. We have much more in common than we differ. My hope is that we begin to treat one another with greater respect, attending to our similarities and common ground, and to refrain from the impulsive actions or reactions that can lead to harm.

World peace is indeed a noble goal and one that is actually within our control. It begins with everyone taking some time to develop inner peace despite the fact we live in a fast and imperfect society. Treat one another with love and respect and keep in mind what Christmas and the Holiday season represent.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holiday to all.

Giving Thanks at Thanksgiving

The annual holiday known as Thanksgiving is upon us here in the United States. This is a day of great food, family, friends, cheer, football, and being together with those we love. It is also a day of thanks and it is important to reflect on all that we have and the many blessings in our lives.

Thanksgiving is a time to praise the great men and women in our current and past military. Their sacrifice is beyond what we can imagine. The families of those who serve in the military also are deserving of our gratitude. We should take time to thank our parents, grandparents, and great grandparents. They most likely have sacrificed much to help the next generation in the family.

While many of us may be experiencing personal financial distress because of a chronic economic downturn, we can still use Thanksgiving to recognize the areas of our lives that may be positive. Health is always one of the most important blessings we need to recognize. Being thankful for our own health and for the health of our family is important. Having the ability to be together with those that you love is another blessing worthy of our attention.

Prayers for those less fortunate, for those in the military, and for those in need can be beneficial to all of us. Simply taking some time on Thanksgiving to enjoy the moment and to enjoy those who have gathered while leaving any anxiety behind can help to make your Holiday a positive one.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Meditation Improves Immune System

Meditation is best known as part of the Buddhist and Indian Yoga traditions. It has now migrated and become more integrated into western civilization including the United States. Research has supported a relationship between meditation practice and positive health outcomes.

A recent study suggests that mindfulness meditation can promote health and cognitive function. The study, published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science indicates benefits for improved immune function, reduced blood pressure, and enhanced cognitive function. The authors also explain the way mindfulness helps with our health.

Four key factors of mindfulness are proposed as important to our health: (1) attention regulation; (2) body awareness; (3) emotion regulation; (4) and sense of self. When integrated, these four factors may help with alleviation of stress.

Health and The Daily Meal

Socialization and mental stimulation are two of the five major components of my brain health lifestyle ® (see www.paulnussbaum.com). One practical tip I have advocated is having one meal a day with the family, friends, or even with new people. I believe this activity is not only social, it promotes story telling, communication, listening to music, use of utensils to consume healthy foods, and slowing down. One activity provides socialization, mental stimulation, nutrition, and even spirituality. Four of the five major components of my brain health lifestyle ® are accomplished with one 45 to 60 minute activity!

It was with great enthusiasm that I read an article in my local newspaper yesterday that outlined a new study detailing the benefits of eating a daily meal with the family. The benefits were particularly important to the emotional and cognitive health of children. The study was published in the American Journal of Pediatrics and supports the health benefits of a non-medical behavioral ritual of our society. The critical point is that we need to work to create and to respect the daily meal and to not let our “busy lives” interfere with this important and necessary daily tradition.