We have known for some time that some persons do not manifest the clinical pathology of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) even though their brains have the hallmark plaques and tangles at autopsy. How this occurs is still not known, but one theory is that those persons who are able to fight the clinical aspects of the disease off may have more brain reserve, developed over the course of their lifetime. It is further thought that particular lifestyle factors such as exposure to enriched, novel and complex environments can help to build reserve.
A new study indicates that the size of the hippocampus, the structures that lie deep in the temporal lobe and help to form new memories and learning, may be important. Researchers at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland found that those persons who avoided dementia had larger hippocampi relative to those who did not avoid the manifestation of the disease. Both groups had the pathologic markers of AD.
Interestingly, the researchers did not find any difference in the two groups on education level or socioeconomic status. However, the study did not explore what the person did in their lifetime, the type of activities he or she pursued, or the quality of learning after graduation. While education level has correlated with reduction in the risk of dementia in other studies, the hippocampus may be stimulated by much more than formal education.
This is most likely the case given the research in 1998 that found the human hippocampus can generate new brain cells. Our goal should be to grow larger hippocampi through enriched environments across our lifetime as a health promoting behavior (see Dr. Nussbaum’s brain health lifestyle www.paulnussbaum.com). In this case, it is to potentially delay onset of dementia.
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.
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.
A leading cause of brain disease in the United States is Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Named after Dr. Alzheimer who published a paper in 1907 describing the cognitive and functional decline of a female patient, this disease now affects nearly 5 million people. It is estimated that those affected by AD will triple by 2050.
AD is the leading cause of progressive dementia. The disease typically erodes memory, spatial functions, language, personality and functional ability. The course of the disease approximates 10-12 years and those over the age of 85 are most at risk. Additional risk factors include female gender, family history of dementia, mood disorder, diabetes, and stroke. The cause is not known and there are no known cures or prevention.
Treatments exist to help reduce the impact of particular symptoms and early detection has advanced significantly. New treatments are being researched and these should be to market in the near future. Lifestyle for brain health has also generated new attention and interest. One aspect of a brain health lifestyle is mental stimulation, a primary function of FitBrains.
If your loved one is experiencing memory loss and there is some concern about this change it is advised that he or she receive a comprehensive dementia examination. This will help to discern if the memory and other cognitive changes fall outside the range of normal and if dementia is present. Early detection is important because existing treatments can be started.
Nearly everyone experiences the inability to recall a name or to struggle trying to find the correct word. These moments are referred to “tip of the tongue” phenomena and can be quite frustrating. The good news is that word finding problems is not necessarily a sign of pathology or disease, and indeed likely represents changes that occur with the normal aging process.
Around the age of 50 our brains begin to change structurally and functionally. We lose brain cells over the lifespan with a disproportionate number of cells lost in the frontal lobes. These are normal changes and the functional change associated with aging is also considered normal. We tend not to freely recall information, our information processing speed slows, and we may struggle with word finding. Once again, these are typically considered normal changes with aging and it is most common to experience such changes around age 50.
I believe that brain exercise, particularly in the cognitive areas listed above, can help to keep these functions relatively sharp and maintained. Passivity certainly will not help the brain and indeed it may exacerbate the changes in our cognitive processes.
Get started today on brain games and turn to FitBrains as your source for a good brain fitness workout.
Brain reserve refers to a brain that has formed many cellular connections and is rich in brain cell density. The power of brain reserve is that we believe it has the ability to delay the clinical onset of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). Simply put, AD will have to work longer and harder to manifest itself if it invades a brain that has built up reserve.
I often use the example of a brain that looks like a jungle versus one that looks like an island with one palm tree. In this example, the brain that looks like a jungle is the healthy brain because it has tremendous cellular connections like the density of a jungle and therefore brain reserve. If you think of AD as a weed whacker, it will invade the brain and begin to do its damage by destroying brain cells. However, it will take AD a long time to show any impact if it has to destroy a jungle’s worth of brain cell connections. In contrast, AD will manifest quickly after infiltration into the brain if it simply needs to destroy only a relatively few cellular connections (the island with one plam tree).
Brain reserve is developed over the lifespan as one exposes his or her brain to the novel and complex, the enriched environment on a daily basis. A Brain Health Lifestyle that involves Mental Stimulation (e.g. brain games), Physical Activity, Spirituality, Socialization, and Nutrition can help to build up brain reserve and maintain a healthy brain.