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Brain Health

September 19, 2009

Yesterday, I attended a lunchtime lecture by Dr. Paul Nussbaum on brain health at the City Club of Portland‘s Friday Forum.  This refreshingly accessible presentation focused on five things we can all do to delay the onset of dementia, especially its most common and pernicious variety, Alzheimer’s disease.

While most American’s accept the importance of healthy lifestyles as a means of reducing their risks of heart disease and cancer, they give little, if any, thought to the importance of maintaining the most complex and important organ in the human body: their brains.  As Dr. Nussbaum repeatedly emphasized, the brain is the single most complex system we humans have ever discovered or studied, and we have only just begun to appreciate its potential.

Aside from the amazing scientific discoveries being made everyday concerning the human brain, we all have a personal interest in appreciating the capacity and complexity of this remarkable two to four pound mass of tissue, blood, and fat locked inside our cranial cavity: It is the repository of our life story — in a very real way our brain is who we are because it holds and organizes the information and emotions that represent everything we have ever experienced or ever will.

Dr. Nussbaum presented abundant evidence of the importance of maintaining an enriched environment throughout one’s life.  He noted, for instance, that although we have known for decades the importance of social, physical, and mental stimulation on the brains of rats, it has only become clear of late just how important these factors are in building brain reserve in humans.  He added, that nutrition and spirituality also make a important positive contributions to brain health, as they sustain the capacities that persist in us even as other capacities become affected by disease.  We may forget our name and the identies of our loved ones, but we never lose the capacity to appreciate the existence of something beyond and bigger than ourselves.

Contrary to longstanding belief, we now have positive evidence that the brain is constantly regenerating itself, and the capacity of humans to learn never really diminishes.  But we will only experience the potential of these discoveries if we abandon unfounded and now discredited notions about human limitations, especially those associated with aging.  Delaying the most pernicious effects of aging, those that rob us of our mind even as they leave us with a healthy body, requires little more than a commitment to living an active and enriching life.

Surrounding ourselves with friends, believing in something bigger than ourselves, eating well rather than eating often, walking regularly, and challenging oneself to learn new things not only make our life richer, they make it more likely any extra years we get are spent well.

Throughout Dr. Nussbaum’s presentation, two things impressed me: First, his commitment to this work and the message were a direct extension of personal experiences and a passion for understanding how the brain made the important people in his life who they are.  Second, many of his observations, although supported by some very robust science, are consistent with the core teachings of some of the world’s most ancient religions.  In other words, as Dr. Nussbaum himself admitted, the most important lessons he has learned about the human brain have not come from classrooms or laboratories, but from the lives of those he loves and what their lives say to him about what it means to be human.

I found myself interested in sharing this experience and presentation here because it helps explain some of the reasons I spent time writing articles and essays for this blog.  This commitment reflects a simple and persistent desire on my part to challenge myself to lead a life that’s just a bit more enriching; to reflect on what I see and hear and what it says about who I am and who I can be.  I hope by sharing my observations and thoughts, by exploring what these ideas mean, I will not only build my own brain reserve, but that I might also stimulate relationships with anyone reading this who finds what I have to say interesting or challenging enough to respond.

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