When we talk about cures for brain illness, we tend to think in terms of the distant future. Diseases like Alzheimer's pose challenges to society at large, and the search for solutions is often measured in decades—not days. The biggest societal challenge is, of course, disease burden, with mental health costs being the largest category, even above cardiovascular diseases, chronic respiratory diseases, cancer or diabetes. Furthermore, mental illness will account for more than 50% of the projected economic burden over the next twenty years. With that impact in mind, now more than ever we should be asking ourselves, “What can we do today?”
In a separate but parallel silo is the evolving field of “brain fitness.” Interest in brain training grew in the early 2000s, after scans on London cab drivers showed enlarged hippocampi, the part of the brain that processes memory. As it turns out, remembering the winding roads and side streets in London significantly impacted not just a London cab driver’s ability to remember, but the actual structure of the physical brain itself.
This study was one of the catalysts for other researchers to begin exploring just how malleable the brain truly is, and how brain performance can be improved through deliberate practice.
Combine these two categories of brain health—diagnosable diseases and “brain fitness”—and suddenly a new conversation has risen: can neuroplasticity-based brain training and related research-to-practice innovation actually impact mental health, help improve people’s lives, and finally, have a significant impact on the associated economic issues.
BrainFutures thinks so.
BrainFutures 2017, a conference set for September 6-7, in Washington, DC, is devoted to spreading awareness of the latest evidence-based advancements in brain fitness and treatment technologies that can, and are, making an impact today. BrainFutures’ lens will be focused on three key areas of interest to most people:
· How is our understanding of brain plasticity transforming learning outcomes, and what are the innovative programs in schools that are helping kids succeed?
· What should we know about steps we can take to maintain brain capacity and performance as we age?
· How are advances in the use of technology (such as games and magnetic brain stimulation) and knowledge about the positive impact of diet, meditation and exercise impacting treatment outcomes for mental illness and addiction?
BrainFutures 2017 will bring together industry pioneers, experts and brain health leaders to discuss innovation that can make a difference here and now, as well as emerging practices on the horizon. The event is a meeting ground and opportunity for thought leaders and audience members alike to tackle this pressing but poignant topic, to both impact people’s lives for the better and have a profound impact on the health care economy.
So, what are some everyday preventative changes that can be done today to improve brain fitness?
1. Physical exercise can improve memory and thinking skills.
Harvard Medical School recently wrote about a University of British Columbia study that found that aerobic exercise can actually increase the size of the brain area responsible for verbal memory and learning—the hippocampus.
“Think of exercise as medication,” says John Ratey, M.D., an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “For a very small handful of people with ADHD, it may actually be a replacement for stimulant medication, but, for most, it’s complementary — something they should absolutely do, along with taking meds, to help increase attention and improve mood.” “Exercise turns on the attention system, the so-called executive functions — sequencing, working memory, prioritizing, inhibiting, and sustaining attention,” says Ratey, author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. “On a practical level, it causes kids to be less impulsive, which makes them more primed to learn.”
In his contributions to ADDitude Magazine, he shares that exercise is an effective complementary strategy that can help to increase attention and improve mood, and for a small number of people can actually be a viable replacement for stimulant medications.
According to another study, regular physical exercise makes changes in the brain that may be able to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s. If physical exercise can reduce the onset of this disease even the slightest, it’s worth spending a bit of time each and every day getting the heart pumping.
2. Fuel for function.
When someone suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, inflammation leads to a loss of connection between nerve cells (neurons) and the brain, as explained by the National Institute on Aging. Research has shown that metabolic disorders can also affect the brain, and that by adjusting your eating habits, you can reduce the inflammation that occurs.
According to April N. Winslow, a certified nutritionist, expectations drive action. Our body is driven by the brain. This predominantly fatty acid mass of bioelectrical potential requires quality fuel if peak performance is expected. Any mental health condition (e.g., depression, anxiety, chronic worry, restlessness, fatigue, hopelessness) can be positively impacted by directing a little more attention to the fuel that is offered to the brain each day. This does not mean rigidity, rather, reflecting on the desires you have for your day, afternoon, morning, or next hour with confidence you
know how to fuel your brain."
There are three key nutrition concepts that will keep your brain running smoothly:
· Fat needs fat – The brain is 60% fat. We must lay aside our fear of consuming a food that has been labeled a word we do not want to become Omega-3 fatty acids (i.e., DHA/EPA) have repeatedly been shown to reverse the negative symptoms of most mental health conditions. Additionally, a brain bathing in plant fats, including seeds and oils, can enhance capacity for memory, integration of complex ideas, and abstract concepts.
· More color please – Color is more than just visual detail. The pigments (i.e., beta-carotene, zeaxanthin, chlorophyll, lutein) in fruit, vegetables, and fungus offer inflammatory reversing gifts along with their well-known disease preventing properties. Aim for variety and preferably, seasonable produce. Experiment. Play with cooking each of the foods in different ways (e.g., grilled, coconut oil-coated peach halves with pink sea salt, cinnamon and nutmeg).
· Drink frequently - Directing the metabolic activities of the body leaves a trail of waste that needs to be removed. Proper hydration promotes improved circulation, filtration by the kidneys, temperature regulation, and removal of waste by the digestive system. Water is an essential nutrient. Needs will vary throughout the lifespan and only you will know what is ideal. However, a perception of consistent calm energy is one option that can result with a properly hydrated brain.
3. Use it or lose it—your cognitive functioning.
With the proliferation of computer brain training programs, has come controversy about their effectiveness. However, a January 2017 Study published in Neuropsychiatry Review recently shed light on this important topic. These researchers reviewed the number and quality of studies demonstrating the effectiveness of commercially available computer cognitive training programs, and rated the evidence for seven. Study authors report that at least some of these products have good scientific evidence supporting claims that they play a role in maintaining healthy brain functioning as we age. One such study, the NIH Active Study found that older adults who received 10 sessions or more of brain training improved their cognitive functioning not just in the short-term (within months) but also over the long-term (as distant as 10 years later).
4. Prioritize quality sleep.
Those who suffer from mental diseases tend to also suffer from insomnia. However, research also shows that issues with getting a full night’s sleep aren’t just a symptom but also a potential risk factor. Studies now link poor sleep to higher levels of protein clumps forming in the brain (called beta-amyloids,) which makes it more difficult for an individual to fall into deep sleep, which is absolutely necessary for cognitive functioning and memory.
An NPR report added that “the brain appears to clear out toxins linked to Alzheimer’s during sleep, and in animals that don’t get enough solid shut-eye, those toxins can build up and damage the brain.”
The good news is that exercise, among other treatments, can help enhance quality sleep.
The practice of meditation has been found to not only reduce stress levels and improve mental clarity, but actually reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s.
According to a study done by a UCLA-led team of neuroscientists funded by the Alzheimer's Research and Prevention Foundation, yoga and meditation showed improvements in the verbal memory skills of participants, such as remembering names and lists of words. Participants also saw improvements in visual-spatial memory skills, such as recalling locations and navigating while walking or driving. The study was comprised of people aged 55 or older.
Helen Lavretsky, the study’s senior author and professor in residence in UCLA’s department of psychiatry, shared in this UCLA column, “Memory training was comparable to yoga with meditation in terms of improving memory, but yoga provided a broader benefit than memory training because it also helped with mood, anxiety and coping skills.”