Published on: April 16, 2012
by Valerie Nahmad Schimel for Miami Herald:
Afraid of Alzheimer’s? Start now to build up your brain.
Want to stay cognizant? Drive safely? Remember things? It’s all about brain health.
“Everybody ages, but it’s about healthy aging,’’ says Dr. Claes Wahlestedt, professor of psychiatry and associate dean for therapeutic innovation at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
“Dementia is extraordinarily common in the 70, 80s and 90s. Good brain health is the ability to think clearly and to continue to live your life as you have before.”
The bad news? Researchers are still unsure of exactly what causes cognitive impairment. Diagnosis is often late and treatments remain elusive. “Alzheimer’s is our main nemesis,” says Wahlestedt, who notes that dementia and mild cognitive impairment (MCI) are milder forms of deteriorating brain health.
The good news? Our understanding of the diseases and how to prevent them is evolving rapidly.
THE BRAIN AS A COMPUTER
“Before we thought the brain was a very static thing, that you were born with a number of cells and that the brain was unable to repair,” says Dr. Carlos Ramirez-Mejia, a neurologist in Baptist Hospital’s neuroscience department.
“But now we know that up to a certain age the brain is able to create new connections and activate different areas when you create a need for them.”
“Think of nerve cells as a computer in the brain,” explains Wahlestedt. “All the wires have to be there for it to work. Nerve cells connect to other nerve cells and create these networks. If some of the cells die off, the networks will not be complete or functional.”
Accordingly, prevention efforts revolve around building strong, healthy nerve cells — from day one.
“We make it clear that you’re never too young to start thinking about good health,” adds Dr. Ralph Sacco, professor and chairman of neurology at University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and immediate past president of the American Heart Association.
“The risk of cognitive impairment goes up with age, but it takes many years of unregulated behaviors to impact it — start doing something now versus doing something later.”
Motivated? Here are five ways to start improving your brain health today.
• Eat a healthy diet
“Studies have shown that people who have a heart healthy, Mediterranean-style diet of mostly fish, legumes, vegetables and olive oil tend to have better brain health,” reports Dr. Po-Heng Tsai, a neurologist at Cleveland Clinic Florida.
A healthy brain diet looks a lot like a healthy heart diet. Avoid foods rich in cholesterol and bad fats and load up on fruits, vegetables, good fats and antioxidants.
• Exercise often
“Exercise keeps your brain healthy,” Wahlestedt says.
“The brain is dependent on blood from the body, so it’s not a good thing if your arteries are really bad at supporting the brain.”
Specific recommendations vary by individual, but in general, longer durations and higher intensities are advised.
“Physical activity is always the trickiest recommendation,” Sacco says. “People who are older may not be as physically active, but if you’re doing less, do it a little longer.”
• Reduce stress
“Every time you’re under stress you produce a lot of hormones that are used in response to threat,” Ramirez-Mejia. “These hormones go to the brain and are very toxic. When you expose a rat to discharges of those chemicals, parts of the brain start to die.”
Reduce stress when possible by removing yourself from stressful situations, exercising, listening to music and/or practicing breathing techniques.
• Sleep better
“It is critical for the brain to process information while you’re sleeping,” Ramirez-Mejia says. “Your body seems to be at rest, but your brain is actually quite active storing memories and processing information from the day. If you’re not sleeping well, your memory and brain function will be impaired.”
• Be mentally, socially active
“The brain needs to learn new things,” Ramirez-Mejia says. “The moment it stops learning new things it goes into this mode where it becomes really efficient at the simple activities of daily living but doesn’t make any effort to make new connections. A brain that has more connections is a more efficient brain and is less prone to Alzheimer’s and dementia”
Learning can be learning a new language, acquiring a new skill, playing an instrument, doing mathematical calculations, exploring the world or planning things for the future — seeing life in the long-term.
“Right now because of the aging population, the predictions for the year 2050 are pretty bleak,” Sacco says. “The number of people living into 70s and 80s are going way up, so projections for Alzheimer’s, dementia and strokes are projected to increase unless we can do something by changing some of these behaviors.”
“The goal now is to produce more connections and build a more dense network,” Ramirez-Mejia adds.
“In the future there will be medications. For now we need to try to induce our body to produce them so we get the benefits.”
Although it’s great to celebrate the big achievements, it’s also important to celebrate the small wins.
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