We have no cure or perfect prevention against progressive dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease (AD). However, research over the past decade or more has established consistent links between lifestyle and the ability to delay the onset of such dementias. I have proposed a “Brain Health Lifestyle” to include five major factors: (1) physical activity, (2) mental stimulation, (3) socialization, (4) nutrition, (5) and spirituality.
A recent interview on ABC News suggested that physical exercise may be the best means of preventing AD today, better than medications, intellectual activity, and supplements. Studies on mice bred to develop plaques in their brains consistent with AD were exposed to an exercise regimen or not. Those mice that exercised had 50 to 80 percent less plaque than the brains of mice that were passive. Other studies have demonstrated generation of new brain cells in animals that exercise and a relationship in humans between physical exercise and increased cognitive performance.
One important point is that our body does not operate in a fragmented manner. I describe the brain and body as a miraculous symphony. One system directly impacts another and both health and disease effects can be experienced as a result throughout the body. Exercise is one example of a behavior that has positive impact on multiple systems of the body including the brain. The same can be said for the other four brain health lifestyle behaviors noted above.
While I am not yet sure that any one behavior such as exercise is better than another in promoting brain health, I do champion regular exercise as a very important behavior with positive brain health effects. My view is to approach brain health from an integrated manner using the five part brain health lifestyle. This approach fits with the complex integrated reality of our bodies and brains.
A recent report from the National Alzheimer’s Disease Association estimates nearly 10 million to 14 million of the baby boom generation (76 million strong) will be at risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease (AD). These numbers may actually underestimate the overall prevalence of boomers who will develop AD in their lifetime. This estimate places a heavy emotional, family and economic burden on the U.S. States given our current approach and over all understanding of the caregiver demands posed by AD. There is no reason to believe that similar nations across the world will be any different.
One method to begin addressing the rising epidemic of dementia is to establish a national or world priority on the human brain and dementia. Citizens of the great planet Earth need to have a basic understanding of their brain, something that is completely missing even in 2008. We cannot expect citizens to care for their brain if they do not understand it or the importance of a proactive healthy lifestyle across their lifespan. One idea is to include basics of brain and brain health in every elementary curriculum in the world.
National policy also has to prioritize research on treatment and prevention of dementia in ways we have not yet. Research is needed on how the brain functions, how diseases begin, new treatments for dementia, and innovation in the area of prevention. Health insurance companies should begin to incentivize lifestyles that promote brain health including lifelong learning, diets, meditation, and physical exercise. Those who continue to work or remain involved in society may be rewarded with some type of tax break. We need to think in terms of a Brain Enlightened Society.
Everyone experiences moments when we feel sluggish or perhaps hyperactive. Sometimes our brains feel like they are stuck in mud while other times we can solve almost any problem we confront. Interestingly, these cycles of mental energy or arousal may occur within a 24 hour time period, our circadian rhythm.
Some of us have our creative time or the time we perform best mentally in the morning hours. Others have their greatness expressed in the evening hours. There is no right versus wrong, simply different. Some people who work after midnight or in a mine shaft that has no natural light can experience a different circadian rhythm than those who work during the day and have exposure to natural sunlight. Sleep disorders, depression, and cognitive problems can result from altered sleep wake cycles.
There is no clear explanation for when arousal is highest in some and lowest for others. Some factors that can enhance or reduce mental energy or arousal include the following:
- Amount of daily exercise
- Amount of sleep in 24 hours
- Types of foods consumed
- Water intake and hydration
- Exposure to sunlight
- Prescribed Medication and substance abuse
- Mental challenge during the day
One of the best methods to increase mental energy is to increase blood flow to the brain through movement. This can include a brisk walk, aerobics, brain games, swimming, and even a dance. Fresh air can also rejuvenate a sluggish brain and increase water intake to remain hydrated during the day. Sugar can put the brain to sleep in some cases or make it feel like a good nap is needed. Caffeine can provide a quick boost, but may result in a type of mental crash later in the day.
It is a good idea to first identify what periods of the day your brain is alert and productive and when it is sluggish. Try to identify what factors might be causing the onset of sluggishness and consider the brain tips suggested above.
A mentally alert brain is critical to health and to productivity.
The human brain left to its own would likely create in unthinkable ways. Creativity most likely occurs when structure is limited and free flow of cognition can take place. It is suggested that Einstein’s most creative moments occurred when he took his morning walk or bike ride.
Recent research suggests creativity relates to advanced age. It is important to note that older brains tend to lose a disproportionate number of brain cells in the frontal lobe, the area of the brain that helps to impose structure in our lives and perhaps on our thinking. With less capacity to impose structure, creativity may be unleashed.
Given this, it is interesting to consider how much brain expression our world suppresses. Our classrooms impose enormous structure as do our jobs. We are highly routinized animals and probably rely as much on our subcortical brain regions as we do our cortex. We tend to refrain from new experiences or pathways to a similar endpoint. We also do not free our brains from structure long enough to express creativity.
It is important to provide your brain with some time to simply think or exist without any task to be completed. Such time may help the brain express itself in ways it otherwise cannot. One prescription is to give your self 30 minutes a day of quiet or idle time. Einstein used such time to take a walk or ride a bike. By releasing structural restraints on your brain, you may create an entire new reality and future for your self and for others.
It seems everyone knows what “stress” is and what it feels like. Most of us agree that stress typically does not feel very good and places the mind and body in a precarious position. We know many things can cause stress and some of the reaction of being stressed is subjective, based on a personal perception. These examples might include being in traffic, waiting for an elevator, waiting for the doctor, or having to deal with perceived incompetence. However, more life threatening stressors such as near death from a motor vehicle accident, child abuse, sexual trauma, war, etc. can impose a more chronic form of stress.
The brain reacts to stress by having a survival type instinct in which you will either run or fight the stressor. Some research indicates this is primarily a male response and that women may be better at actually working with the stressing agent to ameliorate the stress. Perhaps the latter is a more adaptive response to stress and might relate to the fact that women live longer than men.
If the stressor does not go away the effects of the stress can become chronic and result in a clinical condition known as Post-Traumatic Stress disorder (PTSD) or chronic anxiety. Both of these conditions seem to have a hormonal component underlying them in which an explosion of hormones are released in the body—“stress response” and if not turned off can potentially do damage to the body and brain. Some of the hormones such as cortisol and glucocorticoids can actually cause potential damage to the brain.
Animal and some human studies indicate that chronic stress with the persistent hormonal issue described above affects the hippocampus, structurally and functionally. The hippocampus is critical to memory and new learning and it is not coincidental that persons with chronic anxiety or PTSD have memory problems.
Most people understand that it is important to first identify what causes their stress and then to try and develop more adaptive coping strategies to manage the stress in their lives. However, most people probably do not understand that such stress, if not managed can become chronic and may be a negative influence on brain function.
It is a good idea to take some time and list two or three things that represent your chief stressors in life. Once you do this identify how you are presently coping or managing these stressors and try to determine how you might better reduce the negative effects of these stressors on your body and life.