Posted on 14 April 2010
By Mark Miller
Name this body part: It weighs two to four pounds, is composed of 60 percent fat and consumes 25 percent of the blood pumped by every beat of your heart. It may be the most critical organ in your body for healthy aging.
We’re talking about your brain, and the fun facts above are courtesy of Dr. Paul Nussbaum, a leading clinical neuropsychologist specializing in the relationship between brain health and aging and author of “Save Your Brain: The 5 Things You Must Do to Keep Your Mind Young and Sharp” (McGraw-Hill, March, 2010).
Nussbaum, a professor in neurological surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, says “brain health lifestyle” can help us stay sharp as we age, and ward off the possible onset of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. While the science in this area is advancing rapidly, he’s concerned that the message isn’t getting out as quickly as it should.
“We’re still far behind in the medical field promoting what we know to the public,” Nussbaum said during a recent briefing convened by the American Society on Aging. “The brain isn’t not just a critical academic subject–it needs to be a dinner table conversation. The brain is a dynamic system that can be shaped for health across the age spectrum, and it should be at the center of any program for health and wellness.”
Nussbaum thinks the topic of brain health will gain currency as the baby boom generation ages. “Boomers will play a big role in this, because we’re maniacal about health and longevity.”
The most revolutionary idea about the brain to emerge in recent years is the irrelevancy of age, Nussbaum says. “Historically, we have thought of the brain as a rigid system with all of the critical development happening in the first years of life. But now we understand that it has plasticity–it is constantly reorganizing, it’s malleable and it can be shaped across our lifespan.
“Chronological age has no validity. Your brain doesn’t care how old you are; it just wants to be stimulated and shaped.”
Nussbaum focuses on ways to expose brains to complex, novel environments. The aim is to stimulate the brain to grow new brain cells. “Alzheimer’s is a weed-whacker that takes out brain cells,” he says. “The more cells we have, it’s less likely that Alzheimer’s will show up early, and a better chance that it won’t show up even if it is in the brain. This is called building up brain reserve.”
Nussbaum’s research led him to define five critical components for brain aging:
–Socialization. Stay integrated and involved, and strive to avoid emotional isolation. “Loneliness can increase the risk of Alzheimer’s,” Nussbaum says. “Traditional retirement at age 65 is a big problem, because the workplace provides so much meaning, identity and social environment. Don’t retire at 65!”
–Physical activity. Getting aerobic activity several times a week provides a structural and functional boost to the brain, Nussbaum says. Just about anything will do, but his recommendations include walking 10,000 steps daily, dancing, knitting or gardening. And here’s a surprising suggestion: Challenge your brain to be ambidextrous by trying to write with your non-dominant hand a little bit every day.
–Mental stimulation. Try learning a second language, or sign language. Travel is good because it forces you to read new maps and routes. Playing complex board games or puzzles also provides great mental stimulation. Listening to music and surfing the web also can help stimulate and grow brain function.
–Spirituality. Relaxation techniques such as meditation can help; so can daily prayer or attending a formal place of worship. Nussbaum also recommends getting in the habit of having one family or group meal every day, especially with people you don’t know well. That forces you to engage in more complex conversations, and pull up stories from your own past.
–Nutrition. Emerging neuroscience shows that what we eat affects brain function, Nussbaum says. It’s important to get Omega 3 fatty acits into our brains, “especially fatty fishes, like salmon, herring and mackerel. Some studies suggest that eating several ounces of salmon every week reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.” At the same time, he stresses the importance of reducing intake of saturated fats from processed foods, and boosting intake of anti-oxidants from fruits and vegetables.
Resources: View a recent presentation on brain health by Dr. Nussbaum to the American Society on Aging.