By Clark Peters
The three pounds (plus or minus an ounce or two) of pinkish-gray tissue sealed in liquid and encased in a tough white membrane within your skull may not look very prepossessing. But, this unassuming blob is the master of all you do and think and are; it makes you uniquely you. While not large (approximately 2.5 to 3.5 percent of lean body mass), it communicates constantly with each of the trillions of cells that make up the body. It comprises a hundred billion nerve cells called neurons, which are connected by specialized junctions called synapses. The neurons send out electrochemical signals continually to the cells that drive our daily and nightly activities. As well, these neurons are in constant communication with each other via the synapses to formulate our thoughts and words.
We know neurons can be lost over time through trauma or aging, but the brain can also generate new cells, neurons, and synaptic connections, thus changing the structure of the network and thereby our capabilities.
Synapses are the key to this organ’s amazing abilities. Up to five hundred trillion connections (that is not a typo) allow memory, logic and reasoning, and communications as well as drive all the other functions—heartbeat, breathing, movement, digestion, hormone balance, and even sleep. Quite simply, your brain is the most powerful machine in the world. It changes every day, making new synaptic connections to reflect the new experiences and learning of the day. It is important to note you can take advantage of this phenomenon to continually enhance the brain’s already awe-inspiring capabilities. Continuing to “push” the brain becomes ever more important as we age—more about that later. For now, just remember that the brain is a work in progress and responds to challenges the same way your body reacts to exercise and stress—that is, it gets stronger and healthier.
For now, just remember that the brain is a work in progress and responds to challenges the same way your body reacts to exercise and stress—that is, it gets stronger and healthier.
There is a persistent myth that says we use only a small fraction (10 to 20 percent) of the brain’s potential. We now know that, given the fact it works continually to control each cell and every activity, it is engaged 100 percent of the time, even during sleep. The myth about partial use, which may simply have been a case of wishful thinking, probably arose because we are conscious of only a small portion of the brain’s activities—especially when we do things like what you are doing right now, i.e., reading and (hopefully) thinking about these words. The routine processes (breathing, etc.) go largely unnoticed. Walking might provide a good example of a function that we take for granted. If you have ever seen a baby starting to walk, you can see the learning process (the ordering of synaptic connections) in action. Baby wants to get from where he is, say holding a chair leg, to Mom and Dad who are urging “Come over here!” Baby leans in their direction, starts out, and promptly falls down. Baby’s brain immediately recognizes that what he just tried didn’t work and so tries another tactic on the next effort. Certain motions get him closer to his goal and with each effort, the brain refines these “good” stabs into an integrated effort which, though a bit ragged at first, quickly becomes smoother as he becomes more confident. When you watch him with fresh eyes, it becomes obvious that he is learning to prevent a fall! And so it is for all of us, every time we walk from point A to point B. We never think consciously about the act of walking across the room. But it is the same thing! We are successively preventing a face-plant with each step! Now consider the sheer number of synaptic connections and electrochemical signals (happening at light speed) required to contact nerve cells and muscles throughout our body to accomplish this simple task. And, of course, more complicated activities (e.g., running, dancing, hitting a golf ball) require even more of the brain’s remarkable capabilities.
Well, given its importance in all our life functions, the brain rightly commands whatever resources it requires to perform. It demands and gets first call on oxygen, glucose, nutrition, and so on. It is the organ favored over all others, even in dire emergencies. The simple reason for this: if it stops functioning (or directing things), you die.
Clearly, we should take exquisite care of this organ. This becomes even more critical as we get older. Like all our organs and tissues, the brain ages and atrophies without ongoing attention. So, if we want to avoid, or at least delay, deterioration or dementias ranging from “senior moments” to the deadly Alzheimer’s, we need to follow some “rules of the road” for brain health. Fortunately, if you are a regular reader of this column, you already know and practice many of these suggestions.
So, if we want to avoid, or at least delay, deterioration or dementias ranging from “senior moments” to the deadly Alzheimer’s, we need to follow some “rules of the road” for brain health.
As it happens, pretty much everything that is good for your cardiovascular system is also beneficial for the brain. This makes sense, since your brain demands and commands all it needs of available:
- Good nutrition
- Oxygenated blood from physical exercise
- Water from your hydration program (the brain is 80 percent water)
... and so on; all of these things I have discussed in my prior VIE health articles.
As we get older, we start worrying, or we should worry, about cognitive loss. The most devastating brain anomaly is, of course, Alzheimer’s. Brains with this condition are characterized by many amyloid plaques at the synaptic connections. These plaques impede and interrupt the electric flow between neurons, thus disrupting cognition.
Plaques in your bloodstream act the same way, interrupting the blood flow to the heart or brain, resulting in strokes or cardiac events. While medical science cannot definitively point to specific causes for plaques as yet, they are strongly associated with some other items covered in prior articles, namely:
- Sleep disorders
- Smoking (of course)
- Alcohol abuse
- Elevated blood sugar levels
- Sedentary lifestyles
Now, I am going to assume that you have adopted prior recommendations, so you are:
- Eating better food in smaller quantities
- Drinking more (hopefully, much more) water
- Exercising aerobically for at least thirty minutes three times per week
If followed, this regimen will promote good brain health along with significant benefits for the rest of your body.
BUT, there are some other exercises you can do which are thought to prevent or at least delay the onset of dementias, including Alzheimer’s.
Mental Workouts/Brain Push-ups
These exercises require no gym or special equipment—just an appetite for learning new things. Studies have consistently found that people with an active life—mentally, physically, and socially—tend to maintain a healthier brain and enjoy a lower risk of mental decline and dementia as they age. Experts believe that simply doing activities that challenge your cognitive abilities helps keep you sharp. Things like puzzles (crosswords, sudoku, etc.), games (bridge, chess, etc.), taking on a whole new discipline such as learning to dance, speak a new language, or play a musical instrument, and so on are all excellent forms of mental stimulation and exercise. Even some video games seem to provide some benefits. The keys are variety, newness, and increasing challenge. Getting very good at one thing—say crossword puzzles—is helpful, but does not, after you reach a competent level, “stretch” your existing mental capacity enough to require building new neurons or synapses. So, while repetition may keep your existing ability on form, it doesn’t cause your brain to “break a sweat,” thereby adding new volume and capability. That’s why some of the computer “brain training” programs have been found wanting. Yes, you will get better at whatever challenge they present, but this new skill does not cross over. In other words, getting to the expert level on one of these programs (or doing crossword puzzles, for that matter) doesn’t help with remembering names or balancing the checkbook. But, all of these brain exercises do serve to keep you mentally active and delay dementia’s onset and/or slow its progress. Side benefits include:
- Enriching your life
- Lessening boredom
- Preventing or lessening depression, and
- Potentially making new friends who, in turn, may further enrich your life and stimulate your brain.
Basically, progression of the disease robs you, little by little, of you!
I have dwelt on ways to keep our brains healthy and functioning because through my peers, older family members, social acquaintances, and volunteer work at a nursing home I have recently become much more aware of the various stages of many dementias, specifically Alzheimer’s. The early stages of this condition would be merely annoying to the afflicted and mildly amusing to loved ones if they weren’t such harbingers of what’s to come. Basically, progression of the disease robs you, little by little, of you! A little bit of you and your capabilities slip away with the passing of time until simple tasks—driving would be one example—become dangerous, and family and friends become strangers. The intermediate stage progresses to the point where the person requires assistance with even the simplest of daily tasks. The final stage (sorry, this isn’t pretty) is basically life as a living organism without consciousness. The brain is down to basic tasks required to sustain life (heartbeat, respiration, digestion, and elimination), but the person within is “no longer home.” Finally, the amyloid tangles cause cessation of even these primal activities and death results. At that point, death is, in my opinion, merciful.
Well, that was a bit of a dark side road! The point is to do everything we can to avoid this eventuality. So far, medical science is still baffled by the root cause of the plaques and has yet to find a “cure.” It seems to me, then, that doing what we can now to delay the disease or its onset is not just prudent, it’s imperative for a longer, more meaningful life.
Eat and drink intelligently, and exercise both your body and your mind. No one you know and love wants you to “drift away.”
— V —