Brain Awareness Week – What We Can Do to Treat Our Brains Better

This week marks a special time for those of us interested in our brain health. It is Brain Awareness Week (BAW) across the world, when we take time to increase our awareness of the progress and benefits of brain research, along with things we can do for our brains.

This year is special as the Dana Foundation celebrates the 20th Anniversary of BAW outreach events.

There continue to be many advances in our knowledge about how our brains function and what makes them cease functioning the way we would like.

We hope these new discoveries will help us treat and even cure common neuro-degenerative diseases such as dementia as well as take the necessary steps to keep our brains healthy throughout our lifetimes.

There is a lot we can do for our own brains in the meantime to make them as healthy and sharp as possible.

About Our Brains

Our brains are the powerhouses of our body even though the brain is only about 2% of our body mass.

The brain controls the functions we need to survive including breathing, eating, digesting, heart beating, speech, thought and reasoning, emotions, our senses and physical movement. It requires a constant flow of oxygen to survive. The brain uses 20% of both the oxygen we breathe and the blood flow in our bodies.

Our brain is protected by our skull so that it can withstand wear and tear. The brain itself doesn’t feel pain but sends pain signals to other parts of our bodies.

The brain’s structure is complex. Each different function occurs in different locations in our brains – brain stem, cerebrum, cerebellum and limbic system.

When there is a trauma to a particular location in the brain, those systems are directly affected. For example, if damage occurs to the brain stem perhaps from stroke, swallowing, blood pressure, involuntary movements and heart rate are affected. If damage occurs in the cerebellum, balance and movement will be negatively affected.

Many things can damage our brain function, such as stroke, head injury, aneurysm, falls, neurological diseases, external trauma like car crash or gunshot, and other degenerative changes.

Activities for Brain Awareness Week

During this week there will be many events happening in your locale that you and your senior loved one might want to check out.

Some of these events may include:

  • exhibitions about the brain perhaps in the library or university center;
  • lectures on brain-related topics perhaps through the local hospital, wellness clinic or senior center;
  • social media campaigns for BAW using Facebook or twitter chats as well as blogs about brain health;
  • classroom workshops;
  • cooking classes with healthy foods;
  • exercise groups that get you moving for brain health; and,
  • brain stimulating activities like music, chess tournament, spelling bee or game time.

Check out your community calendar or the activities section of your local paper to find out what’s happening in your area.

Current Brain Research and Advances in Knowledge

There are very many research studies occurring right now in the field of neuroscience. As we uncover the secrets to how our brains work and what makes them stop working is of interest especially as the population of the world is aging. Our brains can be susceptible to age-related changes and buildup of proteins that can weaken our brains. Researchers are on the lookout for how protein buildup forms, accumulates and how we can prevent it from occurring in the first place.

One theory is that apolipoprotein-E (apo-E) is responsible for taking away the amyloid protein plaques formed in the brain. If this is the process, then how can this molecule be stimulated to work harder to remove plaque? In 2012, a study of the apo-E-boosting drug bexarotene showed a strong ability to remove amyloid beta from the brains of mice that overproduce the protein and it will be tested in humans to determine its effectiveness for reducing protein plaques. The hope is that this brain clearing drug could have the same mild effect in healthy older adults keeping their brains clear as statins now keep their arteries clear.

Another area of research is looking at biomarkers. These are compounds in our blood or spinal cord fluid that can show disease activity earlier than in the past using other means. Neuro-degenerative diseases start killing neurons long before symptoms appear. Researchers such as the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative and the NIH-funded Parkinson’s Disease Biomarker Program are working toward finding an answer. Being able to confidently test biomarkers will help with clinical testing of new drugs to tell if they are impacting change.

Research also is happening in the field of preventive health. What can we do to prevent damage to our brains from occurring in the first place? Research into the effects of three key areas continues to produce evidence.

Staying physically active helps the brain by improving blood flow and neuron function; staying mentally stimulated and engaged increases the formation of new neuron connections and building a cognitive reserve to replace lost function; and maintaining a good blood flow by achieving heart health can reduce stress on our brains.

Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN Initiative) is a part of the National Institute of Health. They “aim to develop and apply cutting-edge technologies to create a dynamic picture of the brain in action, providing the critical knowledge base for researchers seeking new ways to treat, cure, and even prevent brain disorders.”

The research the BRAIN initiative will fund is designed to map the activities of the brain, how each neuron works and learning about the brain’s functioning on a cellular level in order to share this information with researchers investigating diseases including Alzheimer’s. Hopefully it will lead to further breakthroughs.

Are There Brain Boosting Foods?

We hear all the time about eating this or that to improve how efficiently our brains function or to prevent them from declining. The reality is that little research has proven a direct cause and effect with a particular food and brain health.

Because our brain health is estimated to be 70% dictated by factors we control, including environmental and physical, improved lifestyle choices can help the brain and the body systems that sustain the brain such as circulation.

It is important to know that the more physically healthy we are overall, the better choices we make every day in the foods we eat, the more time we spend being mentally and socially engaged and the motivation we have to be physically active daily will all contribute to our brain health.

Even though there is no direct evidence linking any foods with prevention of dementia, we can improve our eating habits to improve our overall health thereby positively impacting our brain health. Include the following foods for improved brain health:

  1. Food sources of vitamin E such as vegetable oil, seeds, avocado, nuts, and whole grains
  2. Sources of antioxidants help protect brain neurons, including vitamin A, C,D, E, K found in brightly colored fruits and vegetables such as blueberries, raspberries, strawberries and acai berries as well as other produce. Pomegranates and its juice are also good sources of antioxidants.
  3. Fish containing omega-3 fatty acid including salmon, tuna and mackerel
  4. Foods such as dark green leafy vegetables like kale, spinach and greens containing folate and vitamin E. It is believed that folate can help break down homocysteine which is an amino acid that has been shown to damage nerve cells in the brain.
  5. Beans and all  legumes can help stabilize our blood sugar, which is showing promise for not only providing energy for the brain but also for reducing the risk of circulatory system damage when blood sugar is in control.
  6. Caffeine can stimulate mental acuity when taken in the form of coffee, tea and dark chocolate. Coffee and dark chocolate consumed in moderation (more is not better) also contain antioxidants.

In addition to these foods, we shouldn’t overlook the importance of drinking enough water. When our brain gets dehydrated, it’s function is impaired and it actually can shrink. Short term memory and decision making can be impaired when our bodies and brains are dehydrated.

Challenging Our Brains

Our brains like to be challenged, stimulated and exercised. We often hear our brain is like a muscle, needing a regular workout to be in the best shape.

If you would like to try some brain stimulating exercises that are friendly for all ages, you might want to try these puzzles from the Dana Foundation.

It is our challenge as family caregivers to provide opportunities to keep our senior loved one’s brains and bodies active every day!