The NY Times recently reported on a new study that showed it is possible to improve brainpower. The study demonstrated that training the brain in particular cognitive or thinking processes actually help to improve those particular processes. This should make sense as the brain is a dynamic system that will respond to environmental input.
The resistance to such belief lies in the long held and erroneous position that the human brain is a rigid and fixed system that is somehow set by age five! We now know the human brain has “plasticity” and can be shaped across the lifespan. In fact, your brain does not know how old it is, it simply wants to be stimulated.
New research from the University of Michigan supports the power of brain fitness (e.g. brain games) on the ability of the brain to acquire new information. Our ability to learn new information historically has been labeled “fluid intelligence.” This tends to be information we did not acquire in school and that we have no background exposure. In contrast, information acquired in school that is over learned is referred to as “crystallized intelligence.”
Researchers found that new learning (fluid intelligence) increased with increased exposure to the training stimuli. They asserted that fluid intelligence can increase with appropriate training. They are not sure how long the gains will last after training stops, but gains are made with intervals of 8 to 19 days of training for 30 minutes a day.
While research is catching up on what probably is a very practical and basic reality: the human brain, like many of our systems is influenced by environmental input. In the case of the brain the stimuli tends to be information that is processed from the outside world. Repetitive brain exercise (e.g. brain games) will have an outcome and it is reasonable to think that it will be positive with regard to learning. And yes, there will also be a neurostructural and neurochemical change as well.
German scientists have found success in reversing the plaque buildup in brains of mice. The plaque deposits are one of the hallmark features of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and this finding may lead to viable treatments for humans.
The compound reportedly effectively blocks an enzyme responsible for development of the plaque. The compound attaches itself at the precise site on the cell wall where the toxic action occurs.
When injected directly into the brains of mice, scientists indicate the compound works well. The next step is to determine if the compound can cross the blood brain barrier, the protective shield around the brain. Animal tests have begun to determine if medicines given by mouth or injection have the high rate of efficacy as direct injection into the brain where there was a 50% reduction in plaque formation within four hours. Scientists believe that if the testing on animals goes well a human version could be available in five to ten years.
Two recent studies have further underscored my long held belief that many diseases, including those of the brain, actually begin early in life, perhaps even in childhood. The idea that a disease is proactive demands that we are adopt an equally proactive healthy lifestyle.
One study found that high cholesterol levels in the 40s may raise the chance of developing Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) decades later. The findings presented at the American Academy of Neurology in Chicago studied over 9,000 people in California and found that those with high cholesterol levels between the ages of 40 and 45 were about 50 percent more likely than those with low cholesterol to later develop AD.
Another study from Sweden found those with diabetes in midlife are 1.5 times more likely to develop AD later in life. This study followed over 2000 men for 32 years and while other risk factors for AD were found, the most significant was low insulin secretion in midlife.
These studies and others indicate the lifelong development of AD and that we really should not consider this disease a late life disorder. The studies also underscore our need to develop interventions much earlier in life and to adopt a brain healthy lifestyle (e.g. brain fitness) regardless. Such a lifestyle should be a national priority and begin in early childhood if not earlier.
What a great time to be alive if you are interested in your own brain and how to promote its health! With the daily reports of a new finding on how to promote brain health, the development of new companies with products for brain fitness (e.g. brain games), and with the boomers generating a booming interest in this part of their being, we really are in the “golden era of brain health.”
I am so very fortunate to have been involved with brain health more than a decade ago and to witness what I described then as the emerging “Brain Wave” that was coming. It is here and we will all be better for the fact that the human brain has found its way onto the radar screen of health.
A national and world wide discussion of the human brain with a focus on proactive lifestyle towards promotion of brain health is a great and needed thing. Dementia is a real problem and a growing concern. We have the ability to be proactive and to focus on an optimistic and positive path forward as we try to implement research-based behaviors to brain reserve. By building our own brain reserve across our lifespan we probably increase our chances of delaying the onset of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
The next step to this growing brain wave is for the governmental bodies to pass legislation that incorporates national emphasis on the brain similar to what we have done for the heart; for health care payers to include incentives for leading a brain health lifestyle that might recognize lifelong learning, brain fitness, use of pedometers, diet, and meditation as critical ingredients to brain health, and for continued innovation in the business world to apply research to the market.
What a great day to be interested in promoting your own brain health!
A study published in online Neurology 3-27-08 indicates belly fat is linked to increased risk of dementia. Rachel Whitmer, a researcher at Kaiser Permanente Division of Research noted that belly fat increases the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. However, her research on 6,583 men and women ages 40-45 living in northern
California found that belly fat was also related to increased risk of dementia.
Indeed those who were obese (30 pounds or more over a healthy weight) and had collected belly fat in their 40s were 3.6 times more likely to develop dementia during the 30 to 40 year study. Even those who were not obese, yet had extra weight around the waist or belly, were 1.8 times more likely to develop dementia compared to those who were lean all over.Whitmer stated that “it is not simply about weight, but where you carry your weight.” She noted that people who are predisposed to carry their fat in their belly region may be at risk. Fat cells in the stomach secrete hormones that may play a role in diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and now perhaps dementia.
The good news is that anyone with belly fat in their 40s can adopt a lifestyle of diet and exercise that can reduce such fat and reduce the risk of disease related to the fat. Time to get moving and eating healthier!
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.
Stroke is a clinical term that describes cell death in the brain. Stroke is a permanent and can result in significant functional impairment and even death. There are two types of strokes. The first is the most common and is referred to as ischemia. Nearly 80% of all strokes are ischemic and involves a blockage of blood flow that results in cell death. The other 20% of strokes are hemorrhagic that involves a bleeding outward from a weakened artery wall. As the blood gathers increased pressure can be placed on the surrounding brain tissue causing additional damage to the brain.
Both types of stroke are dangerous and can result in deficits of language, attention, information processing speed, and motor skills. Risk factors for stroke include advanced age, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, smoking, and poor diet. Typical preventative measures for stroke include the same protocol as used for the healthy heart. We have learned relatively recently how important blood flow to the brain is, particularly when we recognize that the brain commands 25% of the blood from every heart beat.
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.