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7 Ways to Promote a Healthy Brain

Advice from a White House Conference on Aging webinar


Part of the Alzheimer’s & Dementia: Personal Stories, Research, Advice Special Report

What can we do to ward off Alzheimer’s and keep our learning, thinking and memory skills sharp?  Unfortunately there is no known way to prevent Alzheimer’s, however there are some things we can do to keep our brains as healthy as possible to delay or lessen normal cognitive decline that comes with age.

As part of events that lead up to the main event on July 13, 2015 The White House Conference on Aging (WHCOA) hosted a webinar on Healthy Brains, sharing recent research on cognitive health and tips on maintaining a healthy brain.

The Government’s Healthy Brains Webinar

The hour-long webinar, co-sponsored by the Alzheimer’s Association, featured speakers from the the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the National Institutes on Health (NIH)/National Institute on Aging (NIA) and the Administration for Community Living (ACL) — government agencies with programs and research focusing on cognitive health, dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Nearly 1,500 people registered for the free webinar, WHCOA Executive Director Nora Super reported in her welcome. The event was an opportunity for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to share research and resources on brain health and — as one speaker said — to focus on “an often overlooked organ in the health care setting.”

The speakers first addressed normal age-related cognitive decline (the kind that comes with age) and abnormal, such as Alzheimer’s or other dementias.

There is no activity supplement or medicine that has yet been shown to reduce risk of or prevent Alzheimer's disease.

— Dr. Jane Tilly

Evidence of Resilient Brains

Dr. Molly Wagster , Chief of the Behavioral & Systems Neuroscience Branch, Division of Neuroscience, National Institute on Aging/NIH, reviewed research into and activities that may counter decline.

The Institute of Medicine recently convened an expert panel to summarize what we know about age-related cognitive decline, she said.  “Compared to individuals with Alzheimer’s disease, who suffer extensive loss of neurons or nerve cells in the brain, there is very limited neuron loss with age. However, there may be decline in the function of neurons, noted Wagster.  But, she added, “several lines of evidence point to potential adaptive mechanisms that occur in the aging brain perhaps to compensate for declines in … function and in order to maintain cognitive success.”

Wagster presented a series of slides showing dendrites, or extensions from brain nerve cells,  shrinking with age and a chart showing a decline in cognitive function as we age in areas such as computation and reading.  On the upside, she said, vocabulary is one of the cognitive areas in which people typically improve with the age.

Aerobic Exercise and Video Games

Even more encouraging, Wagster cited studies which showed that “interventions” such as aerobic exercise and cognitive training on computers can increase the function of existing neurons and improve mental  performance.  A study from Art Kramer and colleagues at the University of Illinois “demonstrated that six months of moderate aerobic  exercise, such as walking briskly several times a week, significantly improved cognitive function in older adults.” Wagster reported. Cognitive function was measured by how quickly subjects could switch from one task to another.

Another study, published in the journal Nature in 2013, showed that older adults were able to improve cognitive function through training on video games.  Wagster said additional study is needed into which types of interventions are most effective and for whom.

Lynda Anderson,  Director of the CDC’s Healthy Aging Program, presented the Healthy Brain Initiative,  a resource for promoting brain health and addressing cognitive impairment including Alzheimer’s. 

The Toll Alzheimer’s Takes

Michael Baumgart,  Senior Director of Public Policy at the Alzheimer’s Association, reminded participants how the incidence and impact of Alzheimer’s has grown into a massive problem, with 5.1 million seniors living with the disease, now the sixth largest cause of death in the U.S.  Although Congress has increased funding for Alzheimer’s research by 31 percent since 2011, Baumgart said there is much to be done.  

He directed those with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers watching the webinar to resources on the Alzheimer’s Association site. The Alzheimer’s Disease and Education Referral Center is also a worthwhile resource.  And the ACL (working with the CDC and NIH/NIA and as part of the National Alzheimer’s Plan) has published a Brain Health Resource.

Dr. Jane Tilly, an expert on brain health at the ACL,  made it clear in her remarks: “There is no activity supplement or medicine that has yet been shown to reduce risk of or prevent Alzheimer’s disease.”

So what can we do to keep our brains as healthy as possible and counter the normal cognitive decline that comes with age?  The webinar experts offered these seven tips:

1. Take care of your health.  Certain conditions can affect brain health including diabetes, stroke, high blood  pressure, traumatic brain injury from accidents and depression.  Controlling high blood pressure or wearing a helmet while biking are two things you can do to reduce risk of medical or accident-related dementia.

2. Eat a healthy diet. Some of the conditions listed above can be avoided or managed this way.

3. Be active. As some of the research cited in the webinar shows,  exercise can help counter normal cognitive decline and can also assist in managing and preventing  conditions like high blood pressure and depression associated with poor brain health.

4. Learn new things.  Studies like the one Wagster cited using video games show that older adults can improve their thinking through games and projects that improve their skills.

5. Connect with family, friends and your community. Isolation can be a threat to brain health. Staying engaged with family and being active in your community can keep your brain active, too.

6. Sleep seven to eight hours a night. According to the ACL Brain Health Resource: “Older adults who have poor nighttime sleep are more likely to feel depressed, have attention and memory problems, suffer from excessive daytime sleepiness, experience more nighttime falls and use more over-the-counter or prescription sleep aids.”

7. Drink alcohol only moderately. Excessive drinking can lead to accidents and brain injury.  Alcohol also can interact poorly with prescribed medicines causing confusion or drowsiness.

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