Mental Decay in America
“As you get older, three things happen. The first is your memory goes, and . . . I can’t remember the other two!” – Red Skelton
There is nothing in God’s creation more incredible than the human brain. It encompasses somewhere in the neighborhood of a 100 billion neurons, yet weighs in at around three pounds, or about 2% of the body’s total weight. Yet each beat of the heart delivers 20-25% of the body’s blood to the brain where nerve cells use, on average, 20% of the body’s oxygen and fuel. The brain is the control and command center for the body. It constantly receives, processes and interprets information from the outside world at incredible speeds. Vision, hearing, speech, movement, orientation, intelligence, reasoning, emotion, problem-solving and memories are just a few of the processes governed by this amazing organic computer.
The brain has been a huge mystery for as long as scientists and philosophers have been around. Since the recent advent of computerized brain imaging we are finally beginning to understand some of the complexities, but there is still much more to learn. We take much for granted when it comes to our brains. Even people that exercise and pay attention to what they eat, give little thought to the chunk of fat between their ears. As they say, “out of sight, out of mind.” However, researchers are finding out the brain is an organ that requires much of our attention if we desire to keep it sharp and healthy as we age.
As if chronic illnesses such as cancer, strokes, cardiovascular disease, etc. isn’t enough of a scare, one of the most disturbing things about getting old is the ever-increasing likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias. Consider this: since 2000, deaths from heart disease have decreased by 14% while deaths from Alzheimer’s disease have increased by 89%. Over 5 millions Americans are living with AD, with a new case every 66 seconds. BY 2050, it is estimated the number will exceed 1 million. It is the 6th leading cause of death in America, killing more people than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined. I know of no ribbon devoted to it.
Besides dementia diseases, stroke is the 3rd leading cause of death in the United States, and the leading cause of serious, long-term disability. Each year roughly 800,000 Americans suffer a stroke, ¾ of which occur in people over 65. It is important to note the risk of stroke doubles each decade after age 55.
What started my interest in the study of brain health, and particularly healthy aging, was the prospect of having a sound body and still not having a sound mind. At 60, I have textbook-perfect lab results which testify to the overall health of my body. But what is it all worth if my mind goes dim? I’ve worked hard all my life, raised children, bought and developed property, I’m debt-free, AND I’m about to retire from my “payin’ gigs.” I’m not ready to relax in the easy chair and watch the Western Channel all day, but I am ready to do some things I want to do...and they require a lot of brain power, perhaps more so than many of my younger pursuits. Are any of y’all with me on this?
If the lights start to go out in my brain, I will begin to have memory problems and my brainpower will slowly begin to drain out my ears. Not only is it devastating for me to forget my wife or my children, but I will have created a huge burden on them for my care. But does it have to be that way?
Researchers are far from finding a “cure” for dementia but there is much research to show how we can greatly reduce the risk. Imagine having a sharp memory, good cognitive and problem-solving skills, good concentration and alertness, and maintain better than average proprioception and motor skills — day after day for as long as you live. Think about it...while you still can.
The Eight Factors
Much about the brain will be outside the scope of Man Up Boot Camp. Our focus will be the positive and negative lifestyle factors surrounding brain health. There are eight factors in particular which we discuss:
1. The Diet Factor
- The Diet Factor
- The Physical Exercise Factor
- The Mental Exercise Factor
- The Stress Factor
- The Sleep Factor
- The Social Factor
- The Nature Factor
- The Addiction Factor
Diet has a direct and dramatic affect on the way the brain functions. Since diet is more connected with Part 1 of the Cohesive Lifestyle Training Program, we will only touch on it here. The body of research comes together on this one - diet is key. A good diet will enhance brain health and performance and a bad diet will be to your deficit.
By embracing a healthy brain diet you can enhance brain performance. All three macronutrients are important for your brain. About 60% of your brain matter consists of fats. These fats create all the cell membranes in your body. It is important to have good fats in your diet to produce good-quality nerve cell membranes so they can function at their peak capacity, rather that poor fats creating membranes that do not functon well. It is vital to consume a good quality and quantity of omega-3 fatty acids for mental clarity, concentration and focus. We cover this point in detail elsewhere.
Even though the brain is essentailly composed of fat, the neurons communicate with each other via amino acids from our diet. The hormones and enzymes that cause chemical changes and control all of our body processes are made up of these proteins. So it is likewise good to have quality proteins in your diet.
As for carbohydrates, glucose fuels the brain. However, it is critical to brain health to avoid simple carbs high on the Glycemic Index (or better yet the Glycemic Load). It is far better to consume good quality complex carbs that do not overload the system.
One last point before moving on to the next factor. Our brain must stay properly hydrated to function optimally. Studies show that many Americans do not drink enough water daily. It's best to drink a glass of water upon waking to replenish the night's deficit while sleeping. And remember, taking into consideration temperature and activity level, to stay hydrated throughout the day.
2. The Physical Exercise Factor
Physical fitness also has a direct and dramatic effect on brain function. Fitness is covered in detail in Part 2 of the Cohesive Lifestyle Training Program so will breeze through this quickly. There is one important point that actually falls under both diet and fitness, though we will address it here - the need to maintain a normal body weight.
Men with healthy body weight are better able to keep their cardiovascular system performing optimally bringing good blood flow and needed oxygen to the brain. Obese men in middle age have twice the rate of dementia later in life than those with lower BMIs (body mass index). Often associated with obesity are high cholesterol and high blood pressure rates, which increases the risk of dementia by 600%.
It has been well-documented that aerobic exercise is one of the most beneficial ways to effectively improve memory, executive brain function, visuospatial skills, and processing speed in normally aging adults. Something powerful occurs during aerobic exercise - the release of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Scientists have nicknamed it "Miracle-Gro" as it promotes neuroplasticity by facilitating the processes of neurogenesis (birth of new neurons), neuroadaption (changes in responsiveness of the sensory system), and neuroprotection (preservation of neuronal structure). Yes, it sounds like something to chat with Einstein about over a cup of tea, but these things are vitally important to our health. We don't have to understand all the interworkings, but we need to understand the need to exercise to help the brain's chemistry and promote its longevity.
3. The Mental Exercise Factor
Well they got it wrong. Growing up we were told humans could not grow new brain cells. What we lose, we cannot replace. Brain imaging research proved them all to be in error. In fact, our brains have an incredible ability to create new neurons. They have also found it is extremely important to exercise your brain as well as your body. Use it, or lose it...its that simple.
A 2006 study by the University of New South Wales in Australia, found that being mentally active diminishes the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia by nearly 50% by constructing and maintaining a reserve of cognitive stimulation. This is where neurobics comes in, though its beginning to turn into gimmickry online.
Neurobics (neuron + aerobics) are stretching exercises to increase oxygen and give your brain's neurons more life by experiencing or participating in some new activity, place, or event. When you stretch your mind, it never returns to its previous shape. Research indicates that taxing the brain (making it ‘sweat’) with unfamiliar exercises can improve learning ability, memory, and problem solving.
Activities such as crossword puzzles, playing chess, reading along with critical thinking, learning a new language, learning to play a musical instrument, using your non-dominant hand for tasks, and a long list of other things, are great mental exercises and will go a long way toward keeping your mind sharp and healthy. On the contrary, television consumption should be limited as it sends the brain into a neutral state, void of thinking. Our Boot Camp will go over several good neurobic options.
4. The Stress Factor
Stress affects our entire being: mind, body and spirit. But all stress is not created equal. Short-term stress can be beneficial. It usually has a beginning and end. It exists to support our immediate survival. In fight or flight mode our stress response shuts down non-essential body functions and increases support for essental body functions. Once the stressor is removed, the body usually returns to homeostasis in short order.
Long-term, or chronic, stress occurs over an extended period of time. It can often lead to the development of illness, chronic disease, or death. Neuroscientists have demonstrated that chronic stress and high cortisol levels can damage the brain. Cellular damage usually happens in the hippocampus and can impact memory and learning ability. People who are exposed to chronic stress early in life are prone to mental problems such as anxiety, mood disorders and learning difficulties later in life.
We acknowledge how stressful modern life is and we suggest a stress management program for maintaining a healthy brain. At Boot Camp we go over a simple 10-point program that includes both preventative maintenance and some real-time helps when those stressors kick in.
5. The Sleep Factor
40 Million Americans suffer from chronic sleep disorder. 70 million have insomnia, while 18 million have sleep apnea. For many others it is a lifestyle choice to have less sleep and more waking hours. 20% of Americans report they get less than 6 hours of sleep a night. Yet a good night's sleep is as essential for your body as food and water.
Sleep deprivation affects the brain in multiple ways, impairing judgment, affects cognition, and slowing reaction times. Though there are many conflicting scientific studies, the CDC recommends 7-9 hours of sleep each night for adults, and at least 10 hours of sleep for children. Certainly 7 hours of sleep seems to be the demarcation line agreed upon by most for healthy adults.
Without enough sleep, the brain's frontal lobes do not function properly. When individuals are overtired, there is less blood flow to the frontal lobes, as well as other parts of the brain. Brainwave activity throughout the brain is slowed, overworked neurons do not receive or coordinate information properly, memory is impaired, and attention and focus is decreased. The results is a compromised ability to respond appropriately to everyday life events, not to mention potentially dangerous stiuations.
Sleep is necessary for the nervous system to work properly and to help regenerate the body and the brain. Too little sleep leaves individuals drowsy and unable to concentrate. It can lead to a range of cognitive, attention and emotional deficits, including irritability, impaired memory, coordination and concentration. If sleep deprivation becaomes chronic, hallucinations and mood changes may develop. Without sleep, neurons may become energy-depleted. Excessive adenosine can create neuron malfunctions, even contributing to various neurological or psychiatric disorders (Gomes, et al 2011).
Man Up Boot Camp provides a 7-point recommendation for developing good sleep habits and sleep hygiene.
6. The Social Factor
Humans are social beings, and it shouldn’t be surprising that there are specific groups of nerve cells in the brain that are directly influenced by social experiences. The brain thrives on compassionate communication with others and is starved without it. From the first few days of life to our last, relationships have a dramatic effect on our mental health. The social factor, in short, expands our longevity and boosts the brain’s vitality. Whereas negative relationships are toxic to the brain, many studies have shown that people who maintain positive social relationships live longer and develop the symptoms of dementia later.
7. The Nature Factor
James McBride once said, "Man is an outdoor animal…He is what he is by reason of countless ages of direct contact with nature." The emotional response of human beings to the environment and nature arise from the oldest parts of the brain and occurs before any cognitive response arises. Therefore, if one desires to understand brain function and brain health, it is critical to understand the relationship of human beings to the environment. Natural elements, time spent in connection with nature, views of nature, and natural lighting can have a powerful effect on the body, mind, and spirit. Nature is a source of solace, renewal, and insights. Anywhere individuals can be inspired by natural elements, "recharge their batteries," get their hands dirty in a garden, or engage in partnership with the elements, the beauty and power of nature fills them with awe, gratitude, peace, and a sense of well-being.
Yet modern Americans spend very little time in nature. Many individuals suffer from "nature deficit disorder," a term coined by Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder. Scientists have begun to examine how contact with nature affects the brain and have found that exposure to nature "fires up" the brain as much today as it did in our primitive ancestors. Natural elements provide, for the vast majority of people, a feeling of pleasure. Because the brain is wired for pleasure, human beings are drawn to experiences (including exposure to nature) that provide joy. For example, within the brain, the ventral visual pathway is involved when the individual sees an object or a pleasurable scene. Located in the back of the brain, just above the cerebellum, this pathway is activated, releasing endorphins (morphine-like substances) and causing pleasurable sensations. When the brain experiences joy, positive thoughts, new experiences, and positive emotions, there is an increase in the number of neural pathways created and a release of neurotransmitters that cause this cycle to be sought after by the individual. For this reason, exposure to nature has been used as a prescription for stress, anxiety, depression, forgetfulness, distraction, and lack of creativity.
In our Man Up Bot Camp we will discuss a 15-point list of brain benefits from exposure to nature.
8. The Addiction Factor
The abuse of, and addiction to, alcohol, nicotine, and illicit and prescription drugs costs Americans more than $700 billion annually in increased health care costs, lost productivity, and crime. Tobacco is linked to more than 480,000 deaths annually, while alcohol and illicit and prescription drugs are linked to more than 90,000 deaths annually (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2014).
Addiction, resulting from substance abuse, is a complex, chronic, relapsing brain disease characterized by compulsive, at times uncontrollable, drug craving, seeking, and use that continues to persist despite the potentially devastating consequences. The term "addiction" is considered equivalent to a severe substance use disorder as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
When an individual uses an illicit drug, the body reacts by producing large and rapid surges in various neurotransmitters (such as dopamine). The neurotransmitters either imitate the brain's natural chemical messengers, and/or overstimulate (in both intensity and duration) the natural "reward circuit" of the brain. Some drugs, such as cocaine or methamphetamine, cause the brain's neurons to release abnormally large amounts of neurotransmitters or they prevent the normal recycling of these brain chemicals, which is needed to shut off the signal between neurons. This results in greatly amplified messages that ultimately disrupt normal brain communication patterns.
Virtually every drug (either directly or indirectly) targets the brain's reward system by flooding it with dopamine. This overstimulation produces an intense euphoria that sets in motion a pattern that "teaches" the person to repeat the behavior of drug abuse in order to receive the euphoric feeling. Repeated exposure to these "rushes" ultimately dulls the response of the brain to everyday stimuli and this disturbs the person's normal hierarchy of needs and desires, causing the person to substitute the new priorities of pleasure over the behaviors linked to survival (such as eating, working, spending time with loved ones, etc.). Thus, the individual now focuses on obtaining and using the drug versus, for example, eating.
With substance abuse, the brain circuits involved in memory and behavior control are disrupted. Memories of the drug experience and stress can trigger cravings. The frontal part of the brain (where inhibitory control is located) is the area of the brain most affected by substance abuse. The brain's neuron circuitry becomes increasingly dulled and desensitized by drugs even while the memory of the drug remains.