Busting 4 Brain Health Myths

I’ve not written a blog for a while. And this one’s a bit longer than usual. I feel Brain Health is such an important subject. I was listening to an amazing talk on Dementia by Drs Dean and Ayesha Sherzai in early March, I took some notes and want to share them with you, just the main points. You could also buy their book The Alzheimer’s Solution, if you want the full deal.

Here goes…..the brain is a brilliant organ weighing 3 pounds, has 87 billion neurons and 1 trillion connections. It is fundamental to all we think, feel and do. And it’s a master at filtering and storing massive amounts of information. The brain is meant to thrive, but something has gone massively wrong. Stress, mental illness and dementia are all very common, as is brain fog. We DO now know that diet and lifestyle are fundamental!

To start with there are 4 myths that need busting:

1.It’s a genetic disease and there’s nothing you can do about that, just something that happens as you age. Not true – only 3% of dementias are completely unavoidable. That means there are simple steps you can take to nearly eliminate your risk.

2.Old age means unavoidable cognitive decline. Again not true, lifestyle factors are key:

a. keep the complexity going in your life eg learn a new dance, a new instrument, a new language

b. challenge yourself with the next level. Repetition of what you already know is not a challenge ie if you know 2 languages, learn a third one!

c. have a purpose and be motivated, means doing things you really want to do, not just what you are supposed to do!

3.The brain stops growing after a certain age. Research in the 1990’s and also in 2020’s shows that aerobic activity in elderly people increases new neural connections, synaptic plasticity as well as growth of new brain cells. Exercise causes increased blood flow to the brain as well as the biggest increase in a protein called Brain Growth Factor BGF. This BGF stimulates existing brain cells to increase their connections with other cells.

4.Will power drives lasting changes in lifestyle. This has shown to be counter productive as will power wanes sooner or later and then guilt can build up. The first day or two feels good, then motivation can lower before a new habit is formed and that can be the end of a new goal. The solution is to develop new habits that are driven by achievement and repeated success. Dean and Ayesha use the SMART system to follow through on goals breaking bigger ones down to smaller ones. (The SMART goals system is outside of the scope of this blog but easy to look up.)

Once these 4 myths were busted Dean and Ayesha went on the list 10 brain health tips:

  1. An optimum diet – plant based is best. Research showed that a hybrid diet of DASH and Mediterranean focusing on high levels of plants and low levels of Saturated fat caused a decrease in Alzheimers by 53%. They thought a purely plant based diet avoiding saturated fats would be even better.
  2. Build more brain connections – as mentioned before with a new language, dance steps etc
  3. Challenge the brain in the right way – the brain loves complexity. It was shown in a 2006 study that London taxi drivers’ brains benefited much more from complex route knowledge than London bus drivers who used the same route every day.
  4. Daily physical activity reduces Alzheimer’s risk by up to 40%  – Brisk walking stimulates new brain cell connections as well as other sports such as tennis, swimming, cycling and dancing! Who doesn’t love a brisk walk, and it’s accessible to nearly everyone!
  5. Frequency is important – break the sedentary habit! Throughout the day get up and move around, or work standing! Also means…. don’t just exercise once a week and think that’s enough!
  6. Replace bad stress with good stress – encourage the stress that motivates us to succeed in our goals, sense of enthusiasm or excitement for things that we love to do, that are driven by our purpose. Bad stress such as worry is not driven by our purpose.
  7. Increase consumption of specific foods: turmeric, blueberries, leafy greens twice a day. While coffee is not for everyone – 3-5 cups/day, has been linked to a 65% risk reduction in Dementia at midlife. Caffeine can be too stressful for some, however similar results are seen with decaf coffee.
  8. Sleep well – during sleep glial cells clean up brain “debris”, transport nutrients to neurons, hold neurons in place, digest parts of dead neurons, all great stuff for brain health. Sleep is also where the brain converts information into long term memories. Lack of sleep can damage memory processing centres.
  9. Establish healthy routines – great for your body clock to have a regular rhythm to your day, when you go to bed and when you exercise etc
  10. Take time to set SMART goals to drive healthy changes, develop new habits.

I’d love to hear what you are doing to keep your brain young. Let’s learn from each other!

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