The Care and Feeding of our Brains
Stuart Kieran, MD
1019 West Main Street
Hamilton, MT 59840
The Care and Feeding of our Brains
There is intense research into what can be done to prevent and treat Alzheimer's.
While we are still far from a cure, a lot has been learned as to the risks
for dementia, memory loss and Alzheimer's disease. Factors that increase
the risk of dementia and cognitive decline include, age, hypertension,
smoking, diabetes, educational level, family history and head injury.
There may be other factors such as midlife obesity, lack of physical activity,
social isolation and possibly others that need more research. Some of
these are treatable while others such as age and family history are not.
Of the more readily treatable things that can be done (what we hear about
all the time) are those things that are also good for the heart. The heart
pumps 20 to 25 % of its blood supply to the brain even though the brain
makes up only 2% of our body weight. So it makes sense that keeping our
heart healthy should keep our brain healthy. Getting regular medical checkups,
treating hypertension and diabetes, exercising, watching our weight and
being engaged in social activities all can lower the risk for cognitive
decline. As mentioned in the previous article, what is good for the heart
is good for the brain.
While our educational level is usually finalized in our teens or twenties,
learning doesn't have to be.
Challenging our minds with mental activities such as reading, puzzles,
and computer games has been shown to decrease the risk of cognitive loss.
Challenging is the operative word. Crossword puzzles, Sudoku and other
games are excellent but need to be at a level that are just difficult
enough to be a challenge, but not so hard as to be frustrating. Likewise
the physical activity needs to be enjoyable, consistent and if possible,
social. It does not have to be especially intense; in fact less intense
may be better for brain resiliency. What may be especially good for brain
health are activities that combine physical and mental challenges. Things
such as dancing and Tai Chi are examples of this. The sociability factor
may be at play here also.
What happens to our brains when we do these things? What has been learned
is that the brain has what is called plasticity. It can change and grow
in response to stimulation. So if one takes up a new skill - at any age
- the brain forms new connections (called synapses) and with practice
these connections strengthen. Thru MRI scans it has been found that areas
of the brain that have been trained actually become larger. Although younger
people's brains can do this better than older people, all brains that
don't have severe disease, have the capacity to form new and stronger
Another intriguing finding is brain stem cells. We used to think that
brain cells did not divide or reproduce and that the numbers of brain
cells were at their maximum by age two. For the majority of the brain
this is true but small clusters of brain cells that do divide have been found.
This may have implications for stoke, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's
disease patients. Various substances called growth factors are produced
in the body to sustain and grow all of our cells, including brain cells.
Active research is going on to see what can increase, in a controlled
way, these factors in order to keep brain cells working or even growing.
Low to moderate intensity exercise and calorie restriction (25 to 30 %
lower calories than is standard) are two things that can do this but may
not be something that everyone can or would want to do.
Next week we will discuss medications and supplements that are used for
brain health and function.
The community health column is brought to you this month by a partnership
between Marcus Daly Memorial Hospital and Bitterroot Neurology. For questions
and or comments, please contact Stuart Kieran, MD at Bitterroot Neurology,
1019 West Main Street Hamilton, MT 59840 or call (406) 375-9310. Working
together to build a healthier community!