Category Archives: Brain & Health News

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 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.

Sleep Deprivation and Alzheimer’s

A new study to be published in the Archives of Neurology reports levels of amyloid beta, a byproduct of brain activity considered a marker in Alzheimer’s disease, normally rises during the day and decreases at night. Authors of the study suggest a possible link between sleep deprivation and people’s risk for developing dementia such as Alzheimer’s.

It is well established that reduced sleep can lead to cognitive dysfunction. However, prolonged sleep disturbance may play a role in pathologic processes underlying disease.

The authors indicate that levels of amyloid beta increase and decrease naturally. In healthy people, levels of the protein drop to their lowest level about six hours after sleep and then return to their highest levels six hours after peak wakefulness. The transition from sleep to wakefulness strongly correlated with the rise and fall of amyloid beta. The relationship was most pronounced in healthy, young people and less so in older adults who suffer shorter or more prolonged periods of disrupted sleep.

The authors suggested that the brain’s low activity during sleep allows the body to clear amyloid beta through the spinal fluid. Levels of the protein in Alzheimer’s patients, however, appear to be constant. The authors note that more research is needed, but there are reasons to believe that better sleep may be helpful in promoting brain health and reducing risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Sleep may be a factor in the known relationship between exercise and reduced risk of Alzheimer’s as sleep is related to enhanced sleep.

Stress and the Nervous System

We all have heard about “stress” and the negative impact it can have on our body and brain. Nearly all of us deal with stress on a daily basis and while some acute stress can be advantageous, the chronic effects of stress can lead to physical problems such as headache, backache, stomach and gastrointestinal distress, ulcers, high blood pressure, poor eating habits, and chest pain. Stress can also cause psychological problems such as irritability, impatience, anger, sleep disturbance, fatigue, depression and anxiety. Clearly, stress is both a universal phenomena and unfortunately relates to or causes many of the major daily aches, pains, and emotional distress in our lives.

I believe it is important to always be conscious of our bodies and our brains (minds) so we can identify when we lose balance or symmetry in our natural state. I also believe it is important to understand the physiological mechanisms that underlie stress so we can make changes and achieve equilibrium. In order to achieve the latter, we need to understand our “autonomic nervous system” that has two major parts to be discussed in this blog: the “sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.”

The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is located in the brain and has effects on the entire body. One major part of the ANS is the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) that helps our bodies and brains get into a “fight or flight” state and have actually helped our species survive until today. Recall that dinosaurs and other potentially catastrophic events or threats that required us to fight or flee confronted our ancestors. Without the SNS we would have expired as a species.

The SNS serves as a type of alert and action system in which specific structures in our brain and body engage to enable us to fight or flee. Once the SNS kicks in our brain releases norepinephrine and our body releases epinephrine (adrenaline) to get our system hyper-engaged. The brain is also alerted by the hypothalamus (master gland), which triggers the pituitary gland that in turn triggers the adrenal gland (periphery of the body). These glands release hormones including cortisol and glucocorticoids that put our amygdala on overdrive and our hippocampus (learning center) on hold. These physiological reactions result in our heavy breathing, a restriction in body fluids leading to dry mouth, halt in the digestive system, and in the reproductive system. Our brains become hyper focused and vigilant as we try to deal with the threat in front of us.

Our bodies can tolerate this jolt to our equilibrium for some period of time, particularly as it helps us to survive. However, our bodies are not designed to handle such acute stress for extended periods of time. It is important to note that dinosaurs no longer confront us and life-threatening stressors on a daily basis typically do not confront us. Despite this, we continue to respond to small, non life-threatening stressors with the same SNS response.

Fortunately we have a counterbalance to the SNS known as the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) sometimes referred to as the “rest and digest” system. Our bodies do quite well with our natural balance of PNS and SNS and in fact our resting state is the PNS. Our reactions to daily non-life-threatening stressors results in the SNS overpowering the PNS and increasing our risk for the physical and psychological problems noted earlier. How can you engage the PNS to keep it at least in balance if not the lead in your daily management of life stressors?

Consider the following tips to finding and engaging your PNS:

1.    Stop and identify (make a list) of your daily life stressors.
2.    Identify where your body feels stress (physical and psychological).
3.    Practice rhythmical breathing by taking a slow and deep breath in for four seconds and exhaling slowly for the same four seconds.
4.    Practice the breathing for five minutes, three to four times daily.
5.    Give yourself at least thirty minutes daily of sitting upright in a quiet place where you can simply turn inward and let all stimuli flow over and through you. Be patient and focus on simply being.
6.    Self-talk using positive words such as “love, joy, patience, forgiveness, kindness, happiness, trust, and peace.”
7.    Work daily to not react negatively to small things your brain may have considered “big” in the past.
8.    Do something nice each day for someone.
9.    Slow your pace down and work consciously on inner balance.
10.    Understand this is a lifetime effort and you will experience positive steps and some setbacks. Simply remain conscious of your inner balance and remind yourself “I am trying to reach and use my PNS”

Good Luck!