The Brain is Plastic

Ever hear someone say, “I can’t do yoga because I’m not flexible enough”? They have it backwards because the fact that  they’re not already flexible means practicing yoga can improve their flexibility.

It’s the same way with our brains. Ever hear people say, especially as they get older, “I can’t do that because I’m too old to learn”? Not knowing something already simply means the brain has not been stretched to know those facts, but stretching the brain will cause the brain to become familiar with something new.

That’s called building neural pathways, and it’s the process by which the brain grows new brain cells. It used to be believed that the brain doesn’t grow new cells after childhood, but that has since been proven false as individuals who have suffered brain trauma have been rehabilitated – which means new brain cells have been grown. The term used to describe this ability is “neuroplasticity” – “neuro” for nerves, “plastic” for molding.

But it is true that as brains get older, that process of building pathways requires more intention and effort. That’s why it feels like learning new things at an older age seems harder than at a younger age. That doesn’t mean all is lost, in fact, all the more reason to build new pathways because not doing so will really mean losing the ability to grow new brain cells. That’s why staving off dementia (the deterioration of the brain) truly does rely on taking full advantage of neuroplasticity.

Twins Prove Exercise Helps Prevent Dementia

In a Finnish study, identical twins were compared against each other in the consequences of active vs. inactive lifestyles. As some people would expect, the more active twin had fewer health problems with increasing age. As some would be surprised, both twins had similar diets, which would suggest nutrition alone is not the turning factor of good health.

However, while nutrition is for the most part similar, the fact that the twins are so different in terms of their metabolic profile suggests that exercise is the key that unlocks their genetic “destiny”. It makes sense that if they’re eating roughly the same things (and the main difference is one exercises and the other doesn’t), how that food is processed through the bodies will be different in on than in the other. Therefore, it should be no surprise if the inactive twin has problems with insulin production or resistance, cholesterol levels, and higher body fat.

What may be surprising is that the brains end up being different also. The more active twin has substantial increased areas of grey matter, especially in areas that control motor skills and coordination. What’s interesting is that upon dementia onset, it’s not just memory that’s affected – many times it is physical abilities (such as fine motor skills and coordination) that suffer.

In other words, if only one aspect of life can be changed to prevent dementia, it might as well be exercise because there is a direct link to the prevention of deterioration in physical abilities. It’s possible that that direct link is the development of muscle memory – that is to say, we are often only concerned with mental memory (and afraid of losing it), when perhaps we should also be considering other forms of memory.

Become Involved in Research

Perhaps the real tragedy in dementia is that it is regarded as a natural part of aging. Therefore, it does not receive the attention of medical researchers and research funds the way “more important” diseases such a cancers receive. This is a shame because many more people suffer from types of preventable and treatable dementia or dementia-seeming symptoms than the big scary diseases that strike unexpectedly. It’s simply a misunderstanding when old age is involved, as if it can neglected because it’s a “natural” part of aging.

Consider donating money to organizations that study the causes of dementia or otherwise understanding how dementia works. Another popular way to raise funds is to participate in community athletic events, asking for sponsorships to raise awareness for dementia research. Hosting cultural events or activities is also a fun way to raise funds that can go towards research.

Other ways of being involved in research is volunteering as test subjects in clinical trials. This is available for all parts of dementia-related issues, whether as patients, carers, former carers, or relatives of patients. There is an infinite number of ways to be involved in research, and it is well worth the effort to take advantage of such opportunities because the sooner dementia is defeated, the more likely it may not be an issue to be dealt with personally.

A Hydrated Brain Is a Healthy Brain

Ever feel woozy in the head when thirsty? That’s because the dehydration causes brain fatigue. The brain is easily about 75% water, and it’s not just sloshing around in the skull for no reason. If the body (and brain) doesn’t get enough water, acid levels become higher and inflammation develops, which leads to a host of diseases. The brain is, therefore, not immune to such a hostile environment and begins to deteriorate (leading to dementia).

Forget the adage that drinking eight glasses of water on a daily basis is all it ever takes. The actual (American) calculation that led to this oversimplified statement is that however many pounds someone weighs is to be multiplied by 67% to produce the total fluid ounces of water intake per day. It just so happens that for most people, it comes out to about 8 cups (of 8 ounces, about 250ml) per day. Instead of the formula being circulated (which would mean that everyone would have a slightly different result because their body weight is different), the answer was circulated instead and most people are consuming too much or not enough water – and their brains are suffering. Add to this confusion the fact that a person’s activity level should also be factored in: add 12 fluid ounces (about 375ml) for every 30 minutes of exercise.

Calculations aside, it should be common sense and experience that minor headaches and dizziness can often be alleviated by drinking water. The same goes for certain pangs of hunger (which is often dehydration in disguise), which also goes away after drinking water. It’s the brain crying out for hydration the way wilting plants are signalling for attention. These instances of dehydration accumulate over a lifetime, and it is often after six, seven, or eight decades of life that the consequences (in the form of dementia) can be truly visible.



A Fatty Brain

A false rumour has been circulating over the years that a zero-fat diet is a healthy lifestyle. Certainly for people with high cholesterol issues, intentional care should be given to avoid foods that exacerbate their condition – but not all fats are created equal, and avoiding them altogether could actually do more harm than good as far as the brain is concerned.

 The brain is a powerhouse of the body and consequently can be somewhat guilty of hogging the body’s fuel (which comes from food). A safe estimate is that the brain alone uses about 20% of fuel, and a significant amount of that fuel comes from fats. It’s no coincidence that the brain itself is composed of 60% fat, which means the body itself needs at least 30% fat to supply the brain and keep it working properly. This is why no weight-loss program, no matter how extreme or severe, can ever cut out fats completely – the lowest level of fat inclusion in a properly nutritional diet should still maintain at least 40% fats.

 The real issue, since it’s impossible to forgo fats, is to choose “good” fats that feed the brain as well as filling the stomach.  Olive oil has long been a favourite of these good fats, but there are many more options available, and for different reasons. Coconut oil can tolerate heat better than olive oil, which makes it far more ideal that olive oil (especially extra virgin) when cooking at higher temperatures. Coconut oil also more closely resembles fats that naturally appear in the human body, which means there is less work involved for the body to properly use it.  Peanut oil and grapeseed oil can also tolerate heat, making them suitable for all-purpose cooking. Peanut oil has the additional benefits of being cheaper than olive oil, with just as many (if not more) advantages for heart (and brain) health.