Recent data indicates Americans are living longer than ever before as life expectancy hit 78.1 years in 2006. Rates for 14 of the top 15 causes of death fell in 2006 according the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The most significant decline in cause of death was attributed to influenza and pneumonia that fell nearly 13% from the previous year.
Life expectancy of 78.1 is up from 77.8 years in 2005 representing a continued rise over the past decades. Women have a life expectancy of 80.7 years while men remain somewhat behind at 75.4 years. Racial disparities also exist with white women’s life expectancy at 81 years compared to 76.9 for black women. White men’s life expectancy was 76 years and black men at 70.
The top two causes of death include heart disease and cancer followed by stroke, chronic lower respiratory diseases such as emphysema and then accidents. Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, is now the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S.
Gains made in life expectancy represent an opportunity for continued years of quality of life. Getting started earlier in life with a proactive lifestyle (physical activity, brain fitness, brain games etc.) including that designed for the heart and brain can help to maximize the quality with the increased quantity of life.
The first sound we may perceive as a budding human being on planet earth is the heart beat of our mother. Our brain appreciates rhythm and harmony for stress tends to be limited in such situations. Breathing in a rhythmical manner is taught to reduce stress. Scuba divers describe the peace of being under water when they can hear their breathing in an otherwise quiet environment. Humans continue to migrate to the oceans as a form of vacation where waves provide a rhythm. Others venture to the woods where there is little to distract an inner peace.
These are a few examples of how nature provides our brains with environments that promote rhythm and perhaps stabilize the symmetry of our two brain hemispheres. Our typical daily life takes us out of rhythm and hence causes a stressful disequilibrium in our brain. Research on animals indicates that an environment that is too stimulating leads to slowed brain development. Our challenge is to be conscious of our own daily behavior and the types of environments we expose our brains.
Make it a goal to seek out environments that promote peace and rhythms for your brain. This will help to reduce stress by reducing the amount of stimulation that is not healthy. A walk in the woods, a stroll on the beach, or even witness to a sunset can be more health promoting than you might imagine. Anytime you become conscious of your breathing and surrounding in a safe environment is typically a healthy moment.
Sleep is a highly active time for brain development and brain function. There are four primary stages of sleep including Rapid Eye Movement (REM) when we dream and deep sleep or stage four sleep. It is thought that deep sleep and REM tend to decline with advanced age and these are perhaps the parts of sleep when consolidation of information takes place. As such sleep quantity and quality have a major role in what and how well we process and remember information.
REM sleep occupies about 25% of our total sleep and it is during REM that we dream. We tend to be paralyzed during this part of our sleep so we cannot act out our dreams. Without REM and deep sleep we can become lethargic, depressed, and make mistakes. Significant sleep disorders affect more than 35 million Americans and many more around the world. Sudden sleep is known as narcolepsy and can occur while driving which leads to a high number of fatal car accidents. Sleep Apnea, the first phase of narcolepsy, occurs because of a blockage of the airway and results in sudden gasps for air while sleeping. Apnea is most common in middle age, obese and hypertense males.
When considering lifestyle changes for brain health (e.g. brain fitness, brain games), one of the most important aspects of life is sleep. We tend to not get enough sleep and our brains run on fatigue much of the time. Napping is a lost art and we do not rest enough. As a result, our brains are over-stimulated, stressed, and tired. Consider this blog a permission slip to get a good night sleep and to take a nap sometime this week.
A recent study has supported a relationship between an important ingredient in red wine and retardation of the aging process. Resveratrol, an ingredient of some red wines may have some life extending effects in mice and maybe in humans. The mechanism in play is switching the body’s resources from fertility to tissue maintenance. The improved tissue maintenance appears to extend life by reducing the degenerative diseases of aging.
Scientists believe this switching mechanism can be induced by a faminelike diet, known as caloric restriction that extends the life of rodents by up to 30 percent, but similar effects in humans are not conclusive. Resveratrol has been shown to increase strength, endurance, and speed of lab mice. Findings from studies suggest resveratrol may be effective in mice and humans in smaller doses than previously known. Studies suggest a significant positive effect on aging in mice with dosages that mimic 4-5ounces of wine daily. Researchers believe resveratrol can mimic many of the effects of caloric restriction at doses that can be easily achieved by humans.
So….if you are not predisposed to alcoholism and your doctor has not restricted you from alcohol, one 4-5 ounce glass of red wine a day may indeed promote a healthier aging process.
The Washington Post reported on a recent study out of the National Institute of Mental Health. The study found that different brain areas are activated when a person moves up or down in social status or sees people who are socially superior or inferior. The brain seemed to activate in a similar manner to winning money.
The scientists indicate that our position in social hierarchies affects motivation as well as physical and mental health. Past research has supported the relationship between social rank and health. For example, persons with a lower social status had a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease and to die early. Psychological effects to include loss of control over one’s environment may be one trigger for the relationship to poor health.
The brain seems to have a hard wiring for hierarchical information and that this information is important to us. Our desire to compete, play to win, and to be motivated are directly linked to brain circuitry.
This most likely explains our civilization’s interest in sports, gaming, and competition. Our own individual struggle to reach our specific potential in areas of school, work, or skill development also fit into this model. It may not be such a stretch to suggest that our drive to personal health, including brain health involves such brain circuitry and that computerized mental exercises that provide explicit feedback on our performance is one tangible example of competitive health behavior.
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.
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.