When I meet people who find out that I am a neuropsychologist, I'm often asked what that means. I explain that I have specialized training in brain-behavior relationships and that by analyzing how people perform on certain cognitive tests, I can evaluate whether they have cognitive impairments. I go on to explain that you can develop cognitive problems after a variety of different insults to the brain. People undergo a neuropsychological exam after a head injury, stroke, chronic illness, infection with HIV or other neurovirulent pathogen, or during later life, when memory problems may be a harbinger of a neurodegenerative condition like Alzheimer's disease.
By the year 2020, scientists estimate that there will be staggering 9 to 11 million people with Azheimer's disease. Regrettably, there is no cure for this illness and there is no definitive way to prevent this illness. But decades of research on the brain and health have suggested that there may be ways to reduce your risk. I thought these would be worth describing here, because because they will lead to a more healthful brain, body and better quality of life.
1. Get adequate sleep. There is some evidence that people who are chronically underslept fare more poorly cognitively later in life. Be sure to sleep early enough so you don't have to use an alarm to start your day. Also, because it is harder to get good quality sleep as we age, it's worth devising ways to ensure better quality of sleep, through the use of an eye mask, and/or ear plugs.
2. Exercise! What's good for your heart, is also good for your brain. There's no way around it, so just go do it.
3. Learn to manage stress in healthful and productive ways. Don't count on your television to help you unwind after a hard day at work. Instead, play with your kids or start an art project or other hobby you can look forward to.
4. Get as much social contact as you need. Avoid isolation, and try to maintain long term friendships with people you see regularly, and build strong positive connections with others. It's really good for your brain.
5. Take depression seriously. If you notice a decline in your mood, address it without delay. If you are unsure how to bring yourself out of a funk, go see a professional for help. There's no shame in it and your brain is counting on you to recover.
6. Avoid hypertension, high cholesterol, and diabetes. All of these diseases affect your vascular system. If you have one of these conditions, chances are that you don't feel well, even though it might be controlled with medication. Make those lifestyle changes to return to good health and reduce your reliance on medication. Your brain is an organ that demands quite a bit from your blood vessels. So if your vascular system is in good health, your brain will be in better shape.
7. Keep learning new and challenging things. Technology today enables us to access information with almost no restrictions. You can find out how to do virtually anything from the internet. So learn a new language, learn calculus, history, or computer programming. You can do all of this free of cost! It's truly a brave new world in which we live.
8. Eat a whole food diet that is high in nutrients per calorie. Eat as little processed food and meat as you can. Related to this, avoid obesity, which is also a risk factor for cognitive decline.
9. It's important to recognize that using alcohol or drugs to change your mood or relax or unwind actually represents a dysfunctional relationship with those substances. It's ideal to learn how to manage mood and relax without the aid of mind-altering chemicals. So it goes without saying that chemical dependence should be avoided at all costs.
10. Prioritize leading as meaningful a life as you can, whatever that means to you. For many people, that means finally getting to those goals that they put in the "someday" category. Someday is today!
Recent neuroscience research has concluded that the brain begins changing for the worse more than 20 years before people actually get diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease. This means that if you are in your 40s, and 50s, you really should not put off addressing brain health and fitness. The time is now! You can do it, by making small, sustainable changes that you build on, over time.
Even more recent research suggests that the brain has a lymphatic system, which can be thought of as the body's drain pipes. This is revolutionary. Prior to 2015, medical text books have taught medical students that the brain is the only part of the body without a lymphatic system. So why is this important? We now have the first glimpses into how certain junky, gunky waste proteins that accumulate in the brain and kill brain cells might be cleared, or in the case of Alzheimer's disease, how they fail to be cleared. This may point the way toward research to develop new drugs that target the lymphatic system to "keep the brain drains flowing".
By: Saurabh Gupta, Ph.D.