Recently I ran into an interesting, but truly frightening statistic. It was suggested to me that, given the prevalence and the trajectory of chronic neuro-degenerative disease in our culture today, at the age of 85 I will have a 50-50 chance of being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Literally a coin toss. That scares the (fill in the blank with your favorite invective: make it nasty) out of me. During the same seminar I was listening to on the connection between brain health and the microbiome, I was informed that the time between the onset of that disease and symptoms actually occurring is 20-25 years. Since I recently passed my 60th birthday, that puts me at the point of still being able to do whatever is possible to get those 50-50 odds back in my favor.
Right around that time I also happened to run into one of the best articles I’ve read yet regarding the various factors that can affect the neuro-plasticity of the brain, the ability we all have to continually repair and rewire the brain for long term health and function.
Thus was born the Young Brains Project, a commitment that my wife and myself, along with a couple of friends also in our stage of life, have to understanding and applying these various factors as best we can for the next 25 years and beyond. Here are some things affecting brain health with a couple of brief thoughts as to how I might try to keep my brain young for the duration.
Aerobic exercise. Movement that qualifies as aerobic doesn’t just help our muscles and heart, but also our brain, not just with increasing blood flow, but having a significant impact on the negative consequences of stress as it serves to train our fight-or-flight response, our “monkey brain,” informing it that our actual brain is really in control, so you can just swing back up into the trees, thank you very much. I love my morning jogs and backyard workouts by myself as well as the real ones with our trainer. But we’re also in the process of taking it to another level as we transform our garage into a functional gym for her to work out of. Maybe we’ll see you there sometime!
Emotional health. Fostering healthy emotional attitudes such as gratitude and compassion and healthy, secure relationships based on trust also foster neuroplasticity. Actual dinners and/or happy hours with family where we talk about life and support each other is an important value for us. We also are playing around with Mindfulness Mondays, a time to gather with people interested in exploring topics and practices around managing stress, as well as a Wednesday night meetup for those of us who need a safe place to process questions, doubts and hurts regarding the religion we grew up with that has become either questionable or toxic. I am personally convinced that a healthy and positive spiritual practice belongs on this list. Unfortunately, de-toxing from one based on fear and shame is sometimes a prerequisite to achieving that as you free yourself from a worldview that creates rather than alleviates your stress. And then, of course, there’s always what happens on weekends around the backyard BBQ, Pizza Oven and Firepit with whoever wants to hang out.
Environmental enrichment. Things that stimulate our senses and that challenge our motor abilities and social engagement are critical to keeping our brain active and hence, healthy. The author mentions as examples playing a musical instrument, hiking, traveling, dancing, etc. I’m in. If I could find some people to play guitar with again I’d be way in, especially something that would justify a big stack of amplifiers that go up to 11. For now, maybe I’ll just keep playing it around the firepit. And it’s still on my bucket list to learn to play the piano and another language. Rhonda and I have begun to get hikes back on the calendar and certainly want to begin prioritizing travel for the next few decades. And by all means, let’s dance. Crazy how sitting around watching TV didn’t show up on the author’s list, what’s up with that?
Meditation. With regard to current scientific research on increasing brain neuroplasticity, I would be surprised to learn that anything receives more attention then this. My meditative practice for years has been contemplative prayer, but has been far too on again, off again, especially in busy times of stress when I need it the most. I am very committed to cementing and enhancing principles of mindful meditation in my life and I’m sure that various ways to accomplish this will be a subject that will be coming up on Mondays as well.
Nutrition and Inflammation. I have been nearly overwhelmed lately with all the research being done on the connection between our gut and our brain. Neuro-degenerative diseases, like any auto-immune disease, can all be traced back to inflammation which doesn’t typically start in the brain, but travels to it: primarily from the gut. The right nutrition that avoids inflammation and the leaky gut that gives it the opportunity to travel to the brain is, of course, what the Nutrition Kitchen is all about and something which will always be a part of our long term healthy aging plan, including avoiding cognitive decline.
Physical touch. Yes the mind and body (and the spirit) are inter-related. By touch, of course, we’re not talking fisticuffs. In the context of safety and love, physical touch is healthy for the brain. We’ll continue our regular massage sessions here at home, and more hugs!
Relaxation and deep breathing. Breathing is the one autonomic function we have control over, and learning the techniques that turn off our fight-or-flight response in situations where we don’t actually need it to survive is one of the most useful things we can do maintain brain health. Learning and practicing these, not just in meditation but throughout the day, will continue to be a focus.
Sleep. This is so necessary to restore and repair all of the bodily functions, but the neuroplasticity of the brain is one of the major beneficiaries. How to assure restful sleep is a post to itself, but I do particularly like this one, I’m not going to lie. Not everyone is wired for them, but I particularly enjoy using this to justify my afternoon naps in the sunshine.
Substance use. It goes without saying that things like smoking and excessive alcohol consumption are not going to help the brain age well. But hey, that’s why I brew beer: so I can pour just a half glass at a time from the keg.