Earlier today I posted the second part in the series on the Brain… and whilst there is no doubt that dementia as a disease is feared, there are other ways that we can allow this critical organ to lapse as we age.
Many people’s greatest fear is not that they will get arthritis or wrinkles or put weight on. Dementia or Alzheimer’s disease is a terrifying prospect for many of us who feel that being powerless mentally is far worse than any physical disability. This is probably the hardest aspect to aging that we might have to face but despite that, the emphasis is usually on the more obvious physical effects such as heart disease and conditions such as arthritis.
There are a great many theories about the causes of degenerative brain disease but certainly your lifestyle does have a direct impact on your risk factors.
In this chapter I am going to look at pathways into and inside the brain as they play a key part in our brain health and therefore our aging process.
What are the pathways into the Brain?
Vitally important to our brain health are the pathways that take oxygen and nutrient rich blood to this crucial organ. In this case the arteries that are vital to our brain health are the Carotid arteries, which are on either side of the neck.
These arteries supply the large, front part of the brain, which is responsible for our personality and our ability to think, speak and move. The back part of the brain is supplied by the vertebral arteries that run through the spine. I am going to concentrate on the Carotid as this is the one that, if diseased, can lead to degenerative problems.
What sort of problems can the Carotid Arteries develop?
Like all arteries that supply blood to the various parts of the body such as the heart and brain, the carotid arteries can also develop a build-up of fat and cholesterol deposits, called plaque, on the inside. Over time this layer of plaque increases, hardening and blocking the arteries. This means that the oxygen and nutrients that your brain needs to function are very restricted.
Unfortunately the knock-on effect of a narrowed artery is that plaque can break off and travel to the smaller arteries in the brain, blocking those pathways. Additionally, a blood clot can form and because the arteries have become so narrow it cannot pass and causes a blockage. This is what leads to a stroke.
What are the risk factors for Carotid Artery disease?
People who are at a higher risk of arterial disease are heavy smokers, men and women over 75 years old, High Blood pressure sufferers, Diabetics and if you have higher than normal levels of oxidised LDL cholesterol in your blood.
The good news is that the healthy eating programme that is in the final part of the book is designed to reduce all these risk factors.
How can you tell if your Carotid Artery is blocked?
There may not be symptoms of the disease and it is usually picked up by a doctor who will listen to your carotid with a stethoscope. If there is a problem the doctor will detect an abnormal rushing sound called a bruit which may indicate that your arteries are narrowing and have plaque floating in the blood.
There are diagnostic tests available such as a Carotid ultrasound or Angiogram. However, there are some symptoms that might occur, and if you experience any of these then go to your doctor immediately.
They are usually an indication of a mini-stroke, which is called a TIA (transient ischemic attack)
- Blurred vision in one or both eyes.
- Weakness or numbness in your arm, leg or face on one side of your body.
- Slurring of speech or difficulty in understanding what people are saying
- Loss of co-ordination, dizziness or confusion.
- Trouble swallowing.
This may last a few minutes or hours but it is a medical emergency and you should treat it as such. With medical help you increase your chances of a complete recovery.
Is it too late to make changes to your lifestyle and reverse the problem?
Depending on how severe the problem is you may need medication as well as a change of lifestyle to reverse the damage. In some cases as operation may be necessary to clear the arteries but the earlier you make changes the better.
- Give up smoking immediately.
- Incorporate a natural, primarily unprocessed eating programme. But be careful not to demonize cholesterol as it is a very important component of many healthy and necessary interactions within the body including the production of hormones.
- Have regular check-ups with your doctor – I recommend a full medical once a year.
- You can get most of the indicators checked in your local pharmacy – cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar levels. If you are concerned then go to your doctor.
- Try and stay at a reasonable weight and take exercise regularly.
- Limit your drinking to within acceptable ranges. One to two glasses per day depending on you as a male or female and your health. Do not binge on a bottle one night a week your liver cannot cope with that.
What about the pathways within the brain?
Firstly, many eminent scientists for thousands of years have been trying to unravel the mysteries of the brain. I am not about to attempt it in one chapter. However, there are some basics that we can cover and also some ideas for you to develop on your own which in itself will be a way to put this programme into practice.
There are many pathways in the brain that we use on a regular basis to function. To see, to speak, to hear, to feel emotion, to learn something like language. They are like a giant road network linking all parts of the brain with individual functions and activities. Like any road network blockages can occur from time to time or we find ourselves using the same roads over and over again and the other parts of the network get overgrown with disuse. There are a number of individual pathways that we use every day that usually stay active through our lives such as sight, language and other senses we use constantly to survive.
For example, in a very basic sense – in order for us to see, a physiological signal starts in the retina and travels to the visual cortex in the brain. The optic nerve, which is really more like brain tissue than nerve tissue, carries the signals to the visual cortex at the back of the brain. The visual cortex then interprets the electrical signals from the optic nerves as visual images and we see what is in front of our eyes.
When we are babies and very young children our brain is developing at an incredible rate. Pathways are formed rapidly as the immature brain takes in everything that comes its way. This process slows down in adolescence but we never lose this capability.
Unfortunately, what does happen is that we sometimes prevent ourselves from learning and developing our brain. How many times have you heard someone say that they are too old to learn a language, play a musical instrument, and learn to drive? In fact we are never too old to do any of those things. How we learn is very interesting and again we can limit our knowledge intake by the method we choose to absorb it.
I read a very interesting and appropriate analogy of how we learn by Dr. William Glasser.
He says that we learn from:
- 10% of what we read
- 20% of what we hear
- 30% of what we see
- 50% of what we see and hear
- 70% of what we discuss with others
- 80% of what we experience personally
- 95% of what we teach other people to do.
This means of course that you should be going out and discussing this book with others to ensure that you are getting at least some of what we have covered. Perhaps reading aloud might get you a higher percentage. It does make sense to make this an audio book which would also improve the odds of absorbing the information!
Don’t our brain cells die as we get older?
As in every part of our body, cells have a natural lifetime and it is generally believed that brain cells are not replaced when they die off. However, that still leaves billions behind who are more than capable of learning and processing physical and mental information.
Some interesting research has shown that although many parts of the brain have just one set of neurons to last a lifetime, the hippocampus, which controls learning and the processing of new memories DOES make new neurons at a steady, vigorous pace!
If you have led a life of substance abuse such as excessive alcohol intake, smoking or drugs then yes you may have lost more brain cells than someone who has not. But if you change your lifestyle you will find that other pathways will open up and you can still learn new skills and abilities.
Also by following a healthy and nutritious diet you will be improving the hydration of your brain and the amount of nutrients that are able to get through. Don’t forget the power behind the throne, the Hypothalamus and how it is important for our senses, our mobility, mental health and everyday functioning to keep that flow of nutrients getting through.
How do we get back into the learning processes again?
Your brain, like the rest of our body needs exercise to stay trim and stimulated. Here are some of my tips for getting the brain as fit as the rest of you.
Do a crossword every morning – a cryptic one will really get your brain working – I have a dictionary and a crossword dictionary and I also look things up on the Internet. This is not cheating, it is learning.
Play computer solitaire and try and beat your score each time (my personal favourite and I have a score of 17,332 in 42 seconds but it took me 16 years to reach that) great for hand/eye co-ordination but watch out for repetitive strain injury!
Learn to dance – the activities involved will stimulate your brain and your body. You have to listen to music, remember the steps and co-ordinate them. This gets more than one part of your brain working in partnership. Because you need to practice you will retain at least 80% of the information and if you then teach someone else you will retain 95% of it. It is also great exercise which helps maintain a healthy weight and it will get the oxygenated blood flowing to your brain.
Learn any activity that requires you to move and learn, as this will exercise body and brain – yoga is an excellent example.
Read newspapers, watch TV. Especially the Geography, Discovery channels etc. Go to movies, download when available or rent DVD’s and then find someone to watch and discuss them with.
Write down your story from as early as you can remember. Talk about your experiences with others as you remember them and when you have written them down, read them through and correct spelling and grammar. You may have just written a bestseller and left a legacy for your family.
Stop using a calculator and go back to mental arithmetic. For example always check your supermarket receipts, they can often be wrong!
Make lists of things that you need to do or want to do. It is not a sign of a declining mind if you forget things it is more that you are trying to do too many things at once.
Learn to relax and do not obsess about individual issues. It is very easy to be so involved with a worry that you then find that you become forgetful and confused.
Start a study group of like-minded people who either want to learn a language or painting etc. If you have a book and a cassette in Spanish or French you will learn approximately 30% with ease. If you are in a study group or a class and discuss the subject you will retain a lot more.
Learn to play chess or bridge. Both require agility of mind.
Like the body, the expression ‘Use it or lose it’ applies to the brain as well. You need to start using the side roads as well as the main roads. Get off the beaten track from time to time and explore areas that you have not been for a while. You can teach an old dog new tricks; the incentives however need to be a little more exciting that when he was a puppy.
Alzheimer’s and true dementia are actually rarer than you think. A poor diet, boredom and a lack of stimulation is actually the main cause of an aging brain.
It is never too late to learn. As most of you will discover your bodies will undergo some major and beneficial changes in the next few weeks if you follow a healthy eating programme and begin to incorporate regular exercise. Your brain can regain its youth to a surprising degree, with the proper nourishment and exercise.
Next week… having succeeded in knocking off 10 years or so from your physical, mental and emotional age… how to maintain it..
©Sally Cronin Just Food for Health 1999 – 2018
A little bit about me nutritionally.
A little about me from a nutritional perspective. Although I write a lot of fiction, I actually wrote my first two books on health, the first one, Size Matters, a weight loss programme 20 years ago. I qualified as a nutritional therapist and practiced in Ireland and the UK as well as being a consultant for radio. My first centre was in Ireland, the Cronin Diet Advisory Centre and my second book, Just Food for Health was written as my client’s workbook. Here are my health books including a men’s health manual and my anti-aging book.
All available in Ebook from: http://www.amazon.com/Sally-Cronin/e/B0096REZM2
And Amazon UK: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Sally-Georgina-Cronin/e/B003B7O0T6
Comprehensive guide to the body, and the major organs and the nutrients needed to be healthy 360 pages, A4: http://www.moyhill.com/html/just_food_for_health.html
Thank you for dropping in and if you have any questions fire away.. If you would like to as a private question then my email is firstname.lastname@example.org. I am no longer in practice and only too pleased to help in any way I can. thanks Sally