Category Archives: Brain & Health News

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!

Brain Health in the Summer

Summer is here in a big way splashing the heat and humidity upon us. This is a great time of the year to get outdoors and is far better than shoveling a foot of snow off the driveway. Being able to move outdoors is a great opportunity to expand our list of activities and to increase quality time with our brain health lifestyle ®.

Consider the following 20 activities as part of your daily routine:

  1. Take a daily walk and use Arookoo (www.arookoo.com) or a pedometer count your steps.
  2. Go swimming, as it is good aerobic exercise and will cool your body.
  3. Get the bike out and ride around the block a few times.
  4. Play some sports with the kids.
  5. Cook some fish and chicken on the grill.
  6. Enjoy a cool salad on the deck.
  7. Enjoy a glass of red wine.
  8. Read the book you have been holding.
  9. Kids get started on your summer reading.
  10. Go to a sporting event as a family.
  11. Go to the zoo as a family.
  12. Go to a theme park or water park.
  13. Enjoy a vacation together.
  14. Increase your hours of sleep.
  15. Get involved in a hot yoga class.
  16. Pray daily.
  17. Attend a formal place of worship with the family.
  18. Take a walk in the woods or on the beach.
  19. Plant your garden and clean the yard.
  20. Drink plenty of water.

Consider this a reasonably good start to a brain healthy summer! Take it one step at a time and your body and brain will thank you.

Forgiveness in Our Daily Lives

This week marks a holy week for millions of people worldwide. It provides a time of reflection and renewal and also a time to consider important and basic virtues we all possess. One of them is forgiveness and the simple act of forgiving can be health promoting. It seems forgiveness, for many of us, however, can be a difficult action.

Most if not all humans have some interpersonal conflict with another. Perhaps our conflict is with a peer at work, a friend or former friend, a family member or other. We may carry a grudge, feel uncomfortable and anger towards this person. Who is hurt by these chronic and sustaining feelings and what does such toxic emotion do to the body?

Research is generally robust on the negative effects of chronic anger and stress. It is far better for us to get rid of these emotions, and even better to recognize their emergence and stop them prior to their taking hold of our interactions with others. We are blessed as humans to be able to say, “I am sorry” and to forgive. This is not hard to do unless we get stuck in pride and other face saving roadblocks.

Perhaps this week we can all forgive one person in our lives who has hurt us. Forgiveness is a cleansing of your body and spirit, it does not necessarily indicate right or wrong judgment. Maybe we can tell someone we have hurt “I am sorry.” If millions of us do this we will not only be healthier on an individual level, we will create a more peaceful planet to live.

Hearing Loss and Dementia

Hearing loss is associated with an increased risk of developing dementia according to a prospective analysis of more than 600 people free of cognitive decline. Of those studied, the risk of all-cause dementia rose 27% for every 10-decibel loss of hearing at the start of the almost 12-year study. The risk of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) rose in a similar fashion, but did not reach statistical significance. The study appears in the February issue of Archives of Neurology.

The findings support the idea that social isolation caused by deafness may be part of the cause of dementia. This may be particularly true as the association to dementia was only seen for deafness above the level at which verbal communication was impaired.

Over a five-year period from 1990 through 1994, 795 participants had both hearing and cognitive testing as part of the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging. Of these, the current study consisted of 639 people, ages 36 to 90, free of confirmed or suspected dementia.

The participant subset was followed until May 31, 2008, for a median of 11.9 years. During this time, researchers found 58 participants to be diagnosed with dementia from all causes, including 37 with AD. Most of the participants (456) had normal hearing at baseline with a mean age around 60, while 125 had mild hearing loss, 53 had moderate hearing loss, and six had severe deafness.

Interestingly, in the 15 years before the study period, those who developed dementia had an average yearly hearing loss that was nearly twice average for those who did not develop dementia.

Maybe even a Third Language

Almost as fast as my recent blog on bilingualism and the benefit to the human brain was posted I read a research report that learning a third language can help to reduce risk of dementia. This research from the Public Center for Health in Luxembourg does suggest more languages equal a lower risk of cognitive impairment. The research was to be presented at the American Academy of Neurology in April

Seniors who practice foreign languages over their lifetime and have the ability to speak more than two languages demonstrate the cognitive protection. The research studied 230 people with average age of 73 and findings support the growing body of literature that describes cognitive reserve thought to be developed by engagement in the complex and novel.

Similar studies have shown the health promoting effects of language development and in this case development of more than two languages. In this particular study, participants who had spoken three languages were significantly more likely to be protected against cognitive impairment. Those with four languages were even better off in terms of cognitive health. Those with five or more languages had similar protection to mastering four languages.

We all might want to get started on our second, third, or fourth language today!

Bilingualism and the Brain

I have written and spoken many times about the concept of “brain reserve” which refers to the development of cellular connections that provide a type of synaptic density (like a jungle of connections in the brain) throughout the cortex. It is thought that brain reserve is a reflection of a healthy brain and further helps to delay onset of neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer’s disease (AD).

A new study indicates bilingualism is another avenue to building brain reserve and a potential delaying agent against dementia. Interestingly, language development has been a consistent and robust correlation of brain health and a protective factor.  The development of a second language early in life has typically been the focus of study, however the development of a second language, even some parts of the language, appears to be beneficial from a health perspective.

The research from Toronto, Canada found that of the 450 Alzheimer’s patients studied (all with same level of impairment), those who were bilingual were diagnosed with the disease four to five years later than those who spoke but one language. The study results were presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The scientists believe the learning of a new language helps to develop the executive system in the frontal lobe that might help to provide a buffer against the ravages of dementia.

Within a brain health lifestyle (see www.paulnussbaum.com), mental stimulation and exposure to the novel and complex are essential. This one pillar of my brain health lifestyle helps to build reserve. Language development, including a second language fits with this approach. The study also comes on the heels of another stud that found a correlation between deafness or reduced auditory input and risk of dementia. The possible factor in that relationship is the increased risk of isolation for the person and the brain if incoming information is not processed. Isolation has been established as a consistent factor with risk of dementia.

Language and language development is a critical behavior for brain health. Consider learning some parts of a new language including sign language as part of your proactive brain health lifestyle.