The Care and Feeding of our Brains

Bitterroot Neurology
Stuart Kieran, MD
1019 West Main Street
Hamilton, MT 59840
(406) 375-9310


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 connections.

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!
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