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.
Your brain operates electrically and chemically. Neurochemicals form the dynamic foundation for our thoughts and emotions. Many neurochemicals have been identified while many more have not. Neurochemicals important to mood include Serotonin, Neuropinephrine, Neuroadrenaline, and Dopamine. These neurochemicals remain in healthy balance for most of us, but for some there is imbalance and a mood disorder can result.
Effects of a mood disorder such as depression or mania include functional decline, interpersonal difficulty, and cognitive impairment. Depression is far more common than realized and represents a major chronic illness similar to high blood pressure. Depression not only affects the specific person, but it can also affect negatively those close to the patient and to potential colleagues. Depression and mania impairs thinking by reducing focus, attention, memory, and ability to execute plans. A depressed brain cannot process as deeply as necessary and this can result in rather significant cognitive impairment at times. Uncontrolled mania results in high distractibility, poor attention, and generally impaired cognitive functions across the board.
Treatments for mood disorder are effective and include use of antidepressants, mood stabilizers for mania, psychotherapy, and following a brain health lifestyle as espoused by Dr. Nussbaum (www.paulnussbaum.com). Use of software similar to that of FitBrains that helps to stimulate mental activity can also be of some use for a brain that may be sluggish. The most important thing is to first identify depression when it arises, take it seriously, and get some help.
I have proposed a five factor brain health lifestyle to include (1) Mental Stimulation (e.g. brain games), (2) Physical Activity, (3) Socialization, (4) Nutrition, and (5) Spirituality. For this blog I want to provide some information on the power of socialization.
Research teaches us that social isolation and segregation, particularly in the later years of life is related to increased risk of dementia. Dementia is a general clinical term that describes a decline in general intelligence, loss of memory, language or visuospatial deficit, change in personality, and decline in functional ability. Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) is the number one cause of dementia in the United States.
Other research indicates passivity in the forties is related to increased risk of dementia in later life. There is a relatively strong message to remain integrated and involved in something meaningful across your entire lifespan. It is also important to be engaged with other people and to develop strong relationships. A study this year taught us that loneliness actually increases the risk of dementia. It is not simply being with others, one needs to feel included and related to the group.
It is never too late to develop a personal inventory of your social network and relationships. Assess your life and determine if you are spending time doing the things that inspire you, more importantly that might inspire others. Socialization and all that is discussed in this blog is a brain health issue and one that should be taken seriously.
Our last blog on brain health discussed the importance of mental stimulation (e.g. brain fitness, brain games) as one factor in my five factor brain health lifestyle. Clearly FitBrains provides a fun and healthy brain fitness regiment that is considered mentally stimulating.
Similar to mental stimulation (e.g. brain games), your brain appreciates it when you are physically active. The reason is simple: every time your heart beats 25% of the blood output from that one heartbeat goes directly to your brain! I refer to this as “market share.” If your brain goes even several minutes without sufficient blood and the oxygen carried by the blood will suffer potential damage with functional and cognitive loss.
Research highlights specific physical activities that reduce the risk of dementia (promote brain health). These include:
- Walking on a daily basis
- Aerobic exercise three times a week
- Treadmill, Stepmaster, Stationary bike exercises
- Write with the non-dominant hand daily
Interestingly these activities employ both sides of the body, thereby stimulating both sides of the brain. An ambidextrous brain is probably a more adaptive brain than one that is highly specialized in one hemisphere.
Remember, the more active you are the more your brain will be nourished with the blood-glucose and oxygen it demands. You will have a happy brain!
By now you are well aware of the importance and power of “brain reserve,” the buildup of protective neuronal connections across the lifespan. Brain reserve is one outcome of brain health and is believed to be able to delay the onset of neurodegenerative disease such as Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). I have proposed a five factor brain health lifestyle that includes Socialization, Physical Activity, Mental Stimulation, Nutrition, and Spirituality. Each of these major factors is critical to the health of everyone. As an integrated and proactive lifestyle, the activities and behaviors within each factor can help to shape a healthy brain, beyond what is generated from a passive brain.Mental Stimulation (e.g. brain fitness) is one of the major brain health lifestyle factors. Most people think of the brain as a cognitive or thinking system. While this is certainly true, your brain is far more than simply a thinking system. Your brain is responsible for your emotions, movement, sense of well being, imagination, creative and artistic side and so much more. The brain as a thinking system is certainly well accepted and deservingly so.Research has underscored particular activities that reduce the risk of dementia (brain healthy) and fit well into the mental stimulation slice of my brain health lifestyle. These include:
- Fit Brains brain games
- Reading and writing
- Learning a second language
- Sign Language
- Board Game Playing
- Computerized Brain Exercises
- Musical instrument playing
Obviously, FitBrains provides an important tool and resource for you to stimulate your brain on an ongoing basis. The key element to making mental stimulation a brain health activity is to engage in the “novel and complex.” (e.g. brain games) Tasks that represent the novel and complex for you probably will stimulate your cortex and lead to the development of new neural connections. This is what leads to the buildup of brain reserve. In this scenario, brain fitness using activities such as FitBrains can be considered a health promoting activity, and one that should be included in a proactive brain health lifestyle.