100 is not such a big deal anymore!

With the recent news of the loss of the oldest man who was 113 when he died, attention is being paid to the fact that more people are living to 100 than ever before. By the middle of this century there will be approximately 6 million persons who are 100 or older. Indeed, the median age in developed countries to 50 and re-defines “middle age”.

The baby boom generation is certainly more focused on personal health than prior generations, there is more attention to diet and exercise, doctors are treating older individuals aggressively with advanced interventions, and genetics all play a role with living longer.

Japan will have the most centenarians in 2050 with 627,000 or 1% of their total population. Greece, Italy, Monaco, and Singapore will also have high numbers of those living to 100. The United States centenarians will increase from 75,000 to more than 600,000 by 2050. These are persons currently described as baby boomers and there will certainly be increased health care costs related to this demographic shift.

This demographic shift will have enormous impact across all sectors of life and across the globe.

PTSD Increases Risk of Dementia in Veterans

According to a new study veterans diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) have a significantly higher risk of developing dementia compared to those veterans without PTSD.

Scientists from the University of California-San Francisco reported the findings at the recent meeting of the International Conference on Alzheimer’s disease in Vienna. Their findings indicated veterans with a diagnosis of PTSD had a 10.6% rate of developing dementia over a seven year follow-up while those veterans without PTSD had a 6.6% rate.

The findings indicate that disorders such as PTSD, depression, and chronic anxiety may predispose the brain to vulnerability for dementia. Interestingly, PTSD has been related to dysfunction in the hippocampus, the critical region of disease for Alzheimer’s.

Sleep and the Brain

Sleep is actually a very important function of and for the brain. We need to generate enough sleep to feel rested, to have energy, to assist with mood, and to even help us think more clearly.

Sleep is divided into four stages. Deep sleep or stage IV sleep is critical to brain function. With advanced age we generate less deep IV sleep and it is probably not a coincidence that our cognitive abilities change as well.

Rapid Eye Movement (REM) is the part of sleep when we dream and we are actually paralyzed. REM occupies about 25% of our sleep and is critical for encoding information to a deeper level. Our brain processes millions of bits of information daily and during REM it is thought the brain selects those bits of information that are most critical.

Debate on how much sleep is necessary continues, but it is probably safe to say that young children need at least 8 hours of sleep a day while adults should get more than 6. Certainly, these numbers are not fixed and there are cases where some do fine with only a few hours while others do not. The bottom line is that our brains need sleep, deep sleep, and REM to function efficiently.

Surfing and Autism

Autism is a pervasive developmental disorder that includes a wide array of symptoms. We do not know the cause of autism and we have no cure. Much has been learned and autism is certainly no longer viewed as a single disorder or entity. The emotional strain on a family can be substantial, particularly when resistance to an emotional or loving attachment occurs.

I have been reading more about the positive effects of surfing on some children with autism. As I am not an expert in this area I want to be careful and inform the public that autism is not my area of specialization. However, I have now read several accounts of how a child suffering from autism has a type of “awakening” after some time in the water learning how to surf.

Obviously, the surfing I am describing involves one to one work with a trained surfer who has a gift of working with children suffering autism. It is also true that by these accounts that the first part of the experience can be difficult as the child experiences a natural fear of the ocean and strangers. It might be most difficult for the parents who are watching with great doubt.

The reports indicate that after a short period of time the child with autism not only relaxes, but begins to awaken to life and the surroundings in a way not seen prior to the surfing experience. It is not known why or how this occurs, but perhaps the child’s brain is literally overwhelmed with stimulation which helps to soothe and foster interaction with others in the immediate environment. One parent even described his child as being able to speak and connect in ways he thought was impossible.

Perhaps Mother Nature provides us with some treatments in her own way. The majesty of an ocean whose water fills 80% of our planet might have some answers for the brain. Maybe it is the movement, the energy, the sound, the rhythm. Even if we do not fully understand why, the fact that we have anecdotal evidence for surfing bringing some children with Autism to a new awakening is reason enough to ask more questions.

The Brain and Autopsy

Neuropathologists can confirm clinical diagnoses at death by doing an autopsy. Such work can reveal the presence of markers characteristic of particular diseases. This might include neurofibrillary tangles and neuritic plaques indicating the presence of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) or stroke as examples.

The other interesting thing about autopsies of the brain is that the neuropathologist may uncover something peculiar about the person’s brain that can help to explain that person’s talent or brilliance in a particular activity. One example is Einstein’s brain that had a slightly different area of the parietal lobe relative to the rest of the population. This might help to explain his appreciation of space and numbers.

As I watched the recent funeral of Michael Jackson the most salient issue for me was the children. Like many, I hope and pray for their wellbeing and comfort. I have also noticed multiple articles in the media on determining cause of death in this case and the value of conducting an autopsy of the brain.

I understand the need to determine cause of death; however I am hopeful that any autopsy of the brain also sheds light on the brilliance and creative spirit of Michael. I wonder if the neuropathologist might discover some ideas within the folds and grooves of the brain that help all of us understand not only the brilliance of Michael, but of the human brain and our potential to create.

Freedom and the Brain

Canada and the United States have celebrated their nation’s birthdays and freedom. The cost of such freedom has been and continues to be paid with significant sacrifice and loss of life. Freedom is a great gift and certainly one deserving the rich celebration every year.

I wonder about the brain and freedom and believe the natural existence for our brain is to be free. Our brain is at its best when it is creative and free to imagine, dream, and innovate. Structure and imposed limitation on the brain’s ability to think and to speak is both unnatural and unhealthy.

Surveys have documented the number one value for an older adult is independence. Freedom to move, live, make decisions, and act as one wishes is what independence is about. Dependence on others is the antithesis of freedom and a state of being that most of us fear.

We can enjoy the fact that we in Canada and the United States live in freedom, that we have independence, and that our brains have every opportunity today to create a great innovation that will change the course of mankind!

How about those Glial Cells

For many years neurons have been considered the main act within the cerebral cortex, responsible for our thoughts, emotions, and movements. Of interest is the fact that neurons only account for about 10% of human brain cells. Glial cells that account for the other 90% of brain cells have typically been thought to carry a supportive role to the neurons.

An article in Forbes Magazine (July 13, 2009), however, suggests glial cells may be even  more important than neurons for treating neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and stroke. Recent understanding of the brain now indicates glial cells with neurons play a critical role in brain development and brain function.

Medications on the market today do not work on glial cells. Ben Barnes, Chairman of the Neurobiology Department at Stanford University Medical School posits that one type of glial cells, the astrocytes, trigger the initial steps of destruction in brain diseases. As such, Dr. Barnes believes that by creating treatments that of the astrocytes can in turn save dying neurons.

If glial cells do indeed maintain a more critical role in the formation, function, and elimination of synaptic activity, plasticity, and creation of myelin sheath around the neuron, an entirely new approach to behavioral neuroscience will be born and with it, an entirely new treatment approach.