Brain Health: Minimize the Risk Factors, Maximize the Protections

I have to admit, I love to read and learn new things. Growing up, family members called me a "bookworm," because I was always checking out books from the library. As I grew older, my thirst for reading continued and I even started to write poetry.

Since adding writing to my list of passions, I've written several articles for AgeWise King County and co-authored several with my colleague, Karen Winston. Karen has a passion for creating digital stories—three- to four-minute videos that combine pictures, music, and voice-overs. Digital stories are intimate and emotional, and are created to inspire and/or increase awareness.

A few years ago, when Karen and I created digital stories together, little did we know that—through the creative process—we were doing something good for our brains!

In a recent two-part webinar sponsored by the National Council on Aging and our Seattle-based communications partners, IlluminAge, two fascinating panelists— Michael C. Patterson and Roger Anunsen—translated neuroscience for the brain into easy to understand messages. (To view the webinar archives, click here: Part 1 | Part 2).

Michael and Roger co-founded MINDRAMP Consulting in 2009 to develop brain health programs that effectively prevent cognitive decline, delay the onset of dementia, and enhance mental capacity. Roger is a brain health strategist who teaches college-level gerontology courses in Portland, Oregon. Michael is an entrepreneur and innovator in the emerging fields of brain health and creative aging. Together, they offer presentations, educational programs, training workshops, and consultations to promote brain health and enhance mental development through creativity and the arts. They also co-authored a book called Strong Brains, Sharp Minds, scheduled to be released in June 2015.

During the webinars we learned the crucial formula for cognitive wellness: Brain Health + Flourishing = Cognitive Wellness. Anunsen and Patterson believe that qualongevity (quality-of-life across the lifespan) is achieved when we strengthen the structural capacity of our brains and sharpen our cognitive capacity to recognize, explore, and nurture the positive aspects of life. Even though we had an opportunity to ask questions following their webinar presentation, we sought them out to learn more.

Q: Why are you both so passionate about educating people about brain health and wellness?
A: As we often repeat in our seminars, knowledge really is power. We are all living in what will be known as the Golden Age of Brain Science and we are passionate about educating people about brain health and wellness because our brains are the key drivers of our behavior, our happiness and our sense of fulfillment. Emerging research is providing us with a growing understanding of how the brain works, what causes it to malfunction and what we can do to keep it healthy and working properly. We translate solid scientific evidence into practical programs and practices that can improve their lives.

Q: Why is brain health so important? Why are we hearing so much about this topic now?
A: There are a couple of important trends that have intensified the focus on brain health. The first trend is technological advancement. The last 30 years has seen a revolution in brain research. We have learned much more about the human brain in this period than in all of previous history. Many of the advances are due to new technologies that allow scientists to study living brains, rather than rely on autopsies of dead tissue. While this wealth of research has not successfully figured out how to cure brain damage and diseases, it has done a fantastic job of identifying what puts our brains at risk and what serves to protect and strengthen our brains. The second major trend is longevity and the rise of age-related diseases. More of us are living longer lives and are vulnerable, for the first time in history, to a range of diseases that only appear after many years of life. Some call these diseases of accumulation; they result from the accumulation of small injuries and insults that gradually build up over the years and eventually overwhelm the brain. Scientists are increasingly recognizing dementia and Alzheimer's disease as diseases of accumulation. So, more of us are suffering from age-related neurodegenerative diseases, diseases that erode the ability of the mind to perform properly. And, since we are living longer we worry that our brains will gradually suffer cognitive decline. We worry that our bodies will outlive our brains. Fortunately, emerging research is showing us how to prevent or slow cognitive decline associated with a long life. At MINDRAMP we believe the sensible, evidence-based approach to brain health is preventive. Since we now have a good understanding of what puts our brains at risk and also what protects and strengthens them, we all need to develop what we call "brain health strategies" that both a) minimize the risk factors, and b) maximize the protections.

Roger Anunsen (left) and Michael Patterson promote cognitive wellness

Q: Would you say that this is an international issue, I mean, are other countries interested in brain health?
A: Much of the developed world is experiencing the same increase in life expectancy that we are in the United States. These countries are, therefore, experiencing a similar rise in diseases of accumulation. In Europe there is a big push to tackle the growing problem of increased incidence of dementia, which lowers productivity and puts a huge burden on their national health care systems. France and Great Britain, in particular, have instituted aggressive, nation-wide campaigns to figure out how to prevent dementia, how to do a better job of caring for people who suffer from dementia and how to better support caregivers. And, those countries have been educating the public about what each individual can do to prevent their own cognitive decline. This is precisely what we have been doing with our professional, college, community and family brain health education programs.

Q: People ask whether food and environment impact brain health. Do these factor into brain health?
A: There are certainly risk factors associated with what we eat and with the environment in which we live. Environments that are heavy on risk factors and low on protective factors are simply dangerous to our brain health. MINDRAMP has, consequently, been involved with a number of initiatives like America's Best Communities that work together to create what we call "brain-friendly communities." MINDRAMP organizes protective factors around six key areas that promote cognitive wellness that we call "The CogWheels of Brain Health." These are: 1) physical exercise, 2) mental stimulation, 3) social interaction, 4) stress management, 5) sleep and mental rest, and 6) diet and nutrition. In very broad terms, an environment that promotes the healthy exercise of these areas is a brain-friendly community. On the other hand, an environment that makes it hard to get physical exercise or offers limit mental stimulation or few opportunities for social interaction has been shown to be bad for brain health. High-stress environments or environments where it is difficult to find fresh, whole foods, are likewise risky for brain health. There is growing evidence that the modern diet adopted by most developed countries is, ironically, making us more vulnerable to age-related diseases that contribute to all kinds of problems with health in general and brain health in particular. The diet of developed countries relies heavily on processed foods that are high in carbohydrates. These countries, consequently, experience very high levels of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease that, in turn, do damage to the brain and contribute to dementia. Eating the wrong kind of food is a powerful risk factor for cognitive decline and with the right kind of food comes a lowering of that risk factor followed by the increase in protective factors.

Q: What steps should people consider when thinking about brain health?
A: We have come to believe that the absolute best first step is the one that is in the right direction. Every single person should develop a personal brain health strategy. Brains don't take care of themselves. We all need to actively protect and maintain our brains and then comes the exciting part: we can strive to enhance our cognitive future. In sum, we have to nurture our ability to use our minds to create positive, rather than negative, outcomes. This is why we have moved beyond brain health education and are now actively working with individuals and organizations to develop concrete cognitive wellness strategies. Our latest book, Cognitive Wellness by Design, due out this summer, is a guidebook and workbook that provides step-by-step direction on creating a personalized cognitive wellness strategy. Our previous book, Strong Brains, Sharp Minds, provides a single source for the information people need to understand risk factors and protective factors, and to understand the six Cogwheels of Brain Health.

Q: If people want to learn more, do you have any recommendations as to resources?
A: Through the MINDRAMP website, people can get access to the essential books we mentioned above. Another good online source of information about brain health is the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives at the Dana Foundation. Their website area for publications is http://www.dana.org/publications. People can also check out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Healthy Aging website.


Contributor Mary Pat O'Leary, RN, BSN and colleague Karen Winston are planners with Aging and Disability Services, the Area Agency on Aging for Seattle-King County.