Saturday, September 17, 2005

Working Brains

Our friend the brain. A study was reported on Netscape News today, confirming something I already knew.  When it comes to staving off Alzheimer's, and keeping the brain functioning as well as possible for as long as possible, the best advice is to "use it or lose it."  Sure, there are other avenues of research, promising advances that may one day offer a medical solution, but in the meantime, this is something we can do for ourselves.

"Our results suggest that intellectually demanding activity at work may facilitate brain health in old age," says researcher Ross Andel.  "Those performing complex work with people, such as speaking to, instructing or negotiating with people, appeared particularly protected in this sample."

Simulation is the key.An earlier study with mice shows that "an enriched and stimulating environment" (which therefore keeps brains stimulated and active), results in lower "b-amyloid peptides and brain plaques associated with Alzheimer's."  That's the stuff that causes all the trouble.  Researchers are trying to find ways to trace the process that forms these plaques, and ultimately prevent them. 

Andel and Mortimer's study was based on 40+ years of data involving twins.  Work it! Although their conclusions emphasized the benefits of thinking for a living, other studies - and my own observations of older people - show that you can also protect your brain by thinking on your own time, for fun.  An episode of Alan Alda's Scientific American Frontiers, "Don't Forget," showed a 90-something-year-old-man who kept his brain working well by taking up painting in his old age.  Evidence shows that learning something new forms new connections in the brain, keeping it healthy and functioning.  The same old thoughts don't do it - it has to be something the brain isn't already used to doing.  "Mental aerobics" - brain teasers and the like - also seem to help.

Oh, and incidentally, that old statistic about using only 10% of our brains is total bunk. The brain does an awful lot of stuff, and a simple thought or action may "light up" many parts of it, as seen in some MRI experiments.  Still, the more we actively think and learn, pushing ourselves mentally instead of operating on autopilot, the better off we are in the long run.  It also means we have a shot at being better informed, and the ability to make better decisions - which can benefit us in a crisis, or in the voting booth.

What is brain? Have I told you this before?  Am I going to tell it to you again?  That's a quote from Merlin in The Sword in the Stone (the book by T.H. White, not the movie), but it's something I'm genuinely wondering tonight.  I know I've looked up that Alan Alda show before.  Did I write about it?  I don't remember.  Google doesn't seem to think so.

I do know that I've written before about the contrast between by parents in terms of health as they aged.  My mom was a sedentary smoker who suffered from dementia and was dead at age 75.  My dad took up model railroading after retirement, stayed active physically and mentally, and continues to be involved in the community - a new and different community, that is, after he and Ruth moved to Wilmington, NC.  He's past president of the local railroad museum, for which he still writes grant proposals and give interviews; and he's an elder and recording secretary at his church.  Bottom line:  he's still in remarkably good shape, in body and brain, well into his eighties.  I'm sure that genetic factors, medical history and luck all contributed to my dad doing so much better than my mom, but it's also clear that he's doing everything right to stay as healthy as possible as long as possible.

And then there's me.  I've never been a smoker, but I'm fairly sedentary.  (I've got to get serious again about working out!)  The good news is that I'm constantly learning new things at work.  I joke with my boss that I'm climbing the hill of the learning curve, but the slope is slippery and I'll never reach the top.  As it turns out,that's a good thing!

Bed.  Sleep.  Good.But what about this?  It's clear to me that my brain doesn't function as well when I'm sleep-deprived, and yet I hardly ever get a full night's sleep.  Actually, a little sleep deprivation may help with creative stuff, because the subconscious lurks pretty close to the surface when I'm sleepy.  I've caught myself very nearly dreaming with my eyes open at work, as nonsensical thoughts and images pop up in my brain.  (Becky, invisible?)  It kills the concentration though, and makes it very hard to do logic-oriented tasks, or even repetitive tasks that merely require me to pay attention to what I'm doing.

So now what I'm wondering is this: am I doing myself lasting harm by routinely going to bed at 2AM, and getting up at 7:30 AM?  Aside from not being as efficient as work as I should be, am I interfering with my brain's ability to form those new synapses, to learn and grow and stay healthy?  I dunno - I haven't researched this yet.  But if the effects of sleep deprivation turn out to be more than temporary, then it's my best reason yet to go the heck to bed at a decent hour.




gaboatman said...

You have such a fine and active mind, I don't think alzheimer's will ever be able to catch you.  As for the sleep deprivation, there are a lot of studies out there and a few google searches should bring you the data you seek. I, for one, vote on you trying to get more sleep for a 30 day period and then compare the difference.  Good luck on this.  I do realize how hard it can be to change sleep habits.

alphawoman1 said...

Alzheimer's always gets my attention because of my Dad. We call it dementia because it has been brought on by tiny stokes in his brain. But I agree about keeping the brain active...have they not found some links between mercury and Alzheimer's? Going to get these cool new number puzzles in the newpaper today! Never was good with crossword puzzles because I can not spell! lol.

shellys555 said...

Well, I routinely go to bed at 1 a.m. and get up at 7. Of course, it takes me a while to fall asleep and most mornings, I've just settled into deep sleep when it's time to get up. Perimenopause has me back to my old childhood pattern of being unable to fall asleep easily and sleeping deeply in the morning.

Yes, we humans need on average more sleep than I'm getting and that it sounds like you're getting. I know it takes a few hours for my brain to fully wake up and function properly. But I'm not worried about Alzheimer's. Keeping your mind active seems to be a good way to do that and I keep my brain very active. And I also tell myself if you know you're forgetful, or whatever, than you probably don't have a problem. And believe me, I'm very forgetful. :)

ryanagi said...

I think it's pretty well documented about the effects of long term sleep deprivation... Um...what were we talking about?

old1213susie said...

Mom has Alzheimer's.  She did crosswords all the time.  The key, I think, is to do something new.  Mom didn't have to think about crosswords; they were routine.  Like crocheting, or knitting, at least to her.  She wanted to stay in her comfort zone, and though she was sedentary, she didn't have any other major health issues.  So my best advice is:  Enjoy the life you have, but not from the sidelines.  Get involved with people, and have a reason to get up every day, no matter how much sleep you've had.