Posts Tagged ‘Health’

There Will Be a Hiatus in Healthymemory Blog Posts

September 18, 2016

There Will Be a Hiatus in Healthymemory Blog Posts

HM will be attending the International  Annual Meeting of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society.  HM will also need some time to assimilate and recover.  He should not be missed.  There are 820 posts on this blog.  Use the search box of the blog to find posts of interests.  Here are some suggestions for searches:

myth
cognitive reserve
Herbert Benson
Kahneman
Davidson
Siegel
Mindfulness
Growth Mindsets

Sleep

May 29, 2016

The Cover Page of the 28 May 2016 New Scientist has SLEEP THE GOOD SLEEP as the title.  According to Matt Walker of he University of California, Berkeley, “sleep has been labelled he this pillar of good health, along with diet, exercise.  But that’s underselling it:  sleep is the foundation on which these other two pillars rest.  There is no tissue within the body and no process within the brain that is not enhanced by sleep, or demonstrably impaired when you don’t get enough.”

Besides the well recognized benefits for memory consolidation, repair and growth sleep—or the lack of it— is now though to have a host of other ill effects.  Too little sleep messes with our emotions and our ability to make sound decisions.  It affects our immune systems and appetites, and has been linked to metabolic diseases such as obesity and type 2 diabetes.  Increasingly, a lack of sleep is implicated in mental health problems to include depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease.  One of the articles even makes the claim that too much sleep can be harmful, but other articles raise issues that seem to contradict this claim.  One of the reasons for this might be due to genetics and individual differences.

To account for these differences, the best rule of thumb is that we should not need an alarm clock to wake up in the morning.  In other words, we should wake up naturally.

Shift work has bad effects on health.  Unfortunately,  the jobs of many people require shift work.  Quantitative estimates of the damage caused by shift work would be useful for these people in determining whether they should seek different types of employment.  Catching up during weekends for lost sleep, although necessary, does not appear to make up for adverse healthy effects.  The thinking is that the dangers here might be comparable to those incurred via shift work.

Here are the phases of sleep.

AWAKE

REM — 25% of sleep at night.  First occurs about 90 minutes after falling asleep, then every 90 minutes.  These phases get longer later in the night.

STAGE 1 — light sleep.  Happens when we first doze off and just before waking.  Typically lasts for up to 7 minutes.  During this phase we’re prone to twitches, or hypnagogic  jerks.

STAGE 2 — deeper sleep.  Lasts up to about 25 minutes.  Brainwaves become slower and researchers can pick up “sleep spindles,” distinct patterns of brainwaves associated with memory consolidation.

STAGE 3 + 4 — final and deepest stages of non-REM sleep.  heart rate slows.  Lasts up to about 40 minutes.  Brain activity switches to “slow waves.”  Less aware of external noises.  If you’re aroused  from this stage of sleep, it can take up to an hour to become fully alert.

One might conclude from these stages of sleep that napping will not be beneficial.  This is not so.  According to a piece by Catherine de Lange a “nano-nap” lasting just 10 minutes can boost alertness, concentration, and attention for as much as 4 hours.  A “nano-nap”  takes 20 minutes and you increase your powers of memory and recall, too.  We are unlikely  to enter deeper stages of sleep, so we’ll avoid the phenomenon known as sleep inertia, which is the groggy feeling that can occur when waking from deep sleep.

Deep sleep does provide the biggest boost to learning.  Opt for a nap between 60 and 90 minutes, says Walker.  His research shows this aids learning by shifting memories from short-term storage in the brain’s hippocampi to lockdown in the prefrontal cortex, like clearing space on a USB memory stick.   In addition to aiding the retention of factual information, longer naps can increase motor memory, which is useful for training skills such as sport or playing a musical instrument.

A longer nap can also improve equanimity.  When we’re feeling emotional, we should try snoozing for 45 minutes or more.  This should take us through a stage of REM sleep, and brain scans of people following a REM sleep nap showed more positive responses to images and to pleasant experiences.

This post will conclude with statistics that can come in handy when conversations lull.

29 % of people in the US take their cellphones into the bedroom and use it when trying to get sleep (this is not a good idea).

34 minutes is the average extra sleep people get per night after drinking sour cherry juice before bed for 7 days.

67% of the time when men dream about people it’s about other men.  Women dream equally about men and women.

1.2  minutes of sleep is lost per night for each cigarette smoked during the day.

5 is the number of minutes it takes us to fall asleep if were sleep deprived.  The ideal is 10-15 minutes.

100 times an hour:  how often someone with sleep apnea might stop breathing in the night.

Technology and Poverty

January 28, 2016

The October 2, 2015 edition of the New Scientist had two interesting articles in the Comments section.  The first by Federico Pistero is titled “As tech threatens jobs, we must test a universal basic income.”  An earlier healthy memory blog post, “The Second Machine Age,” reviewed a book by Erik Brunjolfsson & Andrew McAfee titled, “The Second Machine Age:  Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies”l  predicted that many jobs, jobs that would be regarded as advanced, will disappear during this second machine age.  Other healthy memory blog posts reviewed books whose authors argued that humanity’s “unique” capacity for empathy would still keep people employed.  I wrote that there would not be enough jobs requiring this “unique” capacity to keep everyone employed, even if these skills could not be implemented with technology.

The comment piece by Pistero  stated that it is possible that within 20 years almost half of all jobs will be lost to machines, and nobody really knows how we are going to cope with that.  Pistero writes “One of the most interesting proposals, that doesn’t rely on the fanciful idea that the market will figure it out, is an unconditional basic income (UBI).

A UBI would provide a monthly stipend to every citizen, regardless of income or employment status.  A key criticism of the UBI is that it would kill the incentive to work.  However, research cited by Pistero involving a whole town in Canada and 20 villages in India found that not only did people continue working, but they were more likely to start businesses or perform socially beneficial activities compared with controls.  Moreover, thee was an increase in general well-being , and no increase in alcohol, drug use, or gambling.

Of course, this research needs to be replicated, but it is good to know that this problem is being researched.  The poverty resulting from large scale unemployment would be devastating.

A second article in the same Comment section by Laura Smith is titled “Pay people a living wage and watch them get healthier.”   Paying the lowest earners less than a living wage, which occurs in both the US and the UK, leaves full-time workers unable to lift their families our of poverty.   The problem goes far beyond unpaid bills.

Poverty keeps people from resources such as healthcare and safe housing.  People in poverty experience more wear and tear from stress than the rest of us, they are sicker, and they die earlier.  Children living in poverty are more likely to be depressed and to have trouble in school.  Newborns are more likely to die in infancy.  Poor people are marginalized.  They often live outside the scope of therapeutic, vocational, social, civic, and cultural resources.  This experience of “outsiderness” reduces cognitive and emotional function.  Brain activity associated with social exclusion has been shown to parallel that of bodily pain.

Research addressing the question of whether raising people’s incomes would improve their health looked at the impact of a community-wide income rise when a casino was built on a Cherokee reservation in North Carolina.  The research compared psychiatric assessments of children before and after this even.  Children’s symptom rates began to decline.  By the fourth year out of poverty, the symptom rates could not be distinguished from children who had never been poor.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Sleep Time

December 21, 2014

Given that around one-third of our lives is spent sleeping, sleep must be considered for effective time management. I believe it’s a mistake to regard sleeping as wasted time and to work to keep the time we sleep to a minimum. I have a good friend who is quite proud to have gotten it down to four hours per night. I have never been able to understand why this is desirable. For me, sleeping is one of my favorite activities. Apart from being refreshing, I enjoy dreaming. We are able to slip the bounds of reality when we dream.

Levitin in his book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload notes other reasons sleep is important. Newly acquired memories are initially unstable and require a process of neural strengthening to become resistant to interference and accessible to us for retrieval. Usually there are a variety of ways that an event can be contextualized. The brain has to toss and turn and analyze the experience after it happens, extracting and sorting information in complex ways.

Recent research has given us a better understanding of the different processes that are accomplished during distinct phases of sleep. New experiences become integrated into a more generalized and hierarchical representation of the outside world. Memory consolidation fine tunes the neural circuits that first encountered the new experience. It has been argued that this occurs when we sleep because otherwise those circuits might be confused with an actually occurring experience. Moreover, all this consolidation does not occur during a single night. Rather, it unfolds over several sequential nights. Sleep that is disrupted even two or three days after an experience can disrupt our memories of it months or years later. Mathew Walker (from UC Berkeley) and Robert Stickgold (frm Harvard Medical School) notes three distinct kinds of information that occur during sleep.

The first is unitization, the combining of discrete elements or chunks of an experience into a unified concept. The second kind of information processing that takes place during sleep is assimilation. The brain integrates new information into the existing network structure of other items in memory. The third process is abstraction where hidden rules are discovered and entered into memory. Across a range of inferences involving not only language but mathematics, logic problems, and spatial reasoning, sleep enhances the formation and understanding of abstract relations to the extent that people often wake having solved a problem that was unsolvable the night before. Levitin writes that this might be part of the reason why young children just learning language sleep so much.

This kind of information consolidation happens all the time, but it happens more intensely for tasks in which we are intensely engaged. If you struggle with a problem for an hour or more during the day in which you have invested your focus, energy, and emotions, the it is ripe for replay and elaboration during sleep.

Sleep is also necessary for cellular housekeeping. Specific metabolic processes in the glymphatic system clear neural pathways of potentially toxic waste products that are produced during waking thought.

Parts of the brain sleep while others do not. Sometimes we are either half-asleep or sleeping only lightly. Sometimes people experience a brain freeze being unable to momentarily to remember something obvious. Should we find ourselves doing something silly, such as putting orange juice on cereal, it might be that part of the brain is asleep.

Levitin likens the sleep-wake cycle to a thermostat. Sleep is governed by neural switches that follow a homeostatic process that are influenced by our circadian rhythm, food intake, blood sugar level, condition of the immune system, stress, sunlight, and darkness. When our homeostats increase above a certain point, it triggers the release of neurohormones that induce sleep. When the homeostat decreases below a certain point, a separate set of neurohormones are released to induce wakefulness.

Our current 6 to 8 hour followed by a 16-18 hour sleep cycle is relatively new according to Levitin. He writes that for most of human history, our ancestors engaged in two rounds of sleep, called segmented or bimodal sleep, in addition to an afternoon nap. The first round of sleep would occur for four or five hours after dinner, followed by an awake period of one of more hours in the middle of the night, followed by a second period of four or five hours sleep. He notes that bimodal sleep appears to be a biological norm that was subverted by the invention of artificial light.. He writes that there is scientific evidence that the bimodal sleep plus nap regime is healthier and promotes greater life satisfaction and efficiency.

Admittedly, it would be difficult for most of us to be able to accommodate this bimodal sleep regime. Do what works for you and fits into your requirements. Do not overlook the beneficial effects of naps, even very short ones. And stay away from sleep medications that can do more harm than good. Should you have difficulty falling asleep, the worst thing you can do is to get upset about it. Relax. Try meditating on a word or phrase. If you have difficulty attending to the phrase, just relax and gently bring your attention back to meditating. If you are having pleasant thoughts or memories, just go with the flow. Remember that parts of the brain might be sleeping while other parts remain awake, so don’t panic. Be patient. You might be getting more sleep that you think you are getting.

In closing, Levitin notes that sleep deprivation is estimated to cost US. businesses more than $150 billion a year in absences, accidents, and lost productivity It’s also associated with increased risk for heart disease, obesity, stroke, and cancer. So sleep is important. Don’t shortchange yourself.. If you have a chronic problem sleeping, seek professional help.

Comments on an Article Titled Now is The Time for Young People to Face Alzheimer’s

September 18, 2013

First of all, let me state that I am in strong agreement with the title of the article. The author includes both personal experiences and statistics in the article. It begins with the story of the grandfather who has succumbed to Alzheimer’s and needs to be taken care of by the author and her mother. He requires around-the-clock care. Her grandfather is not alone as are over 5 million Americans suffering with this incurable and life-altering disease. “Symptoms usually develop slowly and get worse over time, becoming severe enough to interfere with daily tasks. Those with Alzheimer’s lose the ability to do things that were once routine. As the disease progresses, patients forget their loved ones’ faces, where they live and much more.

The stress of this disease, though, largely falls on the patient’s caregiver. An elderly adult caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s has a 60 percent chance of dying before the patient, and this past June, my family saw this firsthand. My grandma Margaret died suddenly of an aneurism after caring for her husband of 60 years. Her death left our family lamenting the stress she lived with in her final years.

Stepping into my grandmother’s shoes has been a difficult experience for my mom and me. Trying to get through normal grief is hard enough, but simultaneously caring for my grandpa challenged us on many emotional levels. Slowly but surely, time eases the pain of grieving a loved one, but there remains a hole in our heart that will never be healed.

As a 19-year-old helping to take care of an 81-year-old with Alzheimer’s, I began to reflect on how this disease will affect future lives. As of now, someone develops Alzheimer’s every 68 seconds. That’s scary enough, but by 2050 people could develop the disease every 33 seconds.

The segment of the population over age 65 is also expected to double by 2030. While the number of older folks increases, the rate of those with Alzheimer’s will also increase. Millennials like myself need to acknowledge the fact that we will become the manifestations of these horrifying statistics. The five million Americans currently with Alzheimer’s are only a third of the 15 million projected to have the disease in 2050. I’m terrified to think what life will look like for the elderly when I turn 65 in 2058, and others in my generation should share that fear.

Young people tend to have an invincibility complex, through which the health issues of the elderly are the farthest thing from their minds. With such a serious health threat to our society, millennials simply cannot afford to only think about me me me. The problem of Alzheimer’s in America grows greater by the year, and we cannot wait until 2050 to start and look for solutions.

While I help with my grandpa’s care, I hope my family’s story will help others reflect on the devastating future of Alzheimer’s. Though the statistics don’t look bright, I remain optimistic my fellow millennials will try and think more about our collective health.”1

What is conspicuously missing from this articles is what millennials can do about Alzheimer’s. And that is what the healthymemory blog is about. See previous healthymemory blog posts, “The Myth of Alzheimer’s”, and “Sigmund Freud and Alzheimer’s Disease.” The individual who discovered Alzheimer’s disease, Alois Alzheimer, had serious doubts as to whether he had discovered a disease. And there are serious doubts as to whether there will be drugs developed that can either cure of provide an immunity to a disease. Current drugs slow the progression, and, in my view, prolong the suffering.

To this point, drugs have been primarily targeting the amyloid plaque and the neurofibrillary tangles that have been found in autopsies done on sufferers of Alzheimer’s. At one time, and this is perhaps still the case, this was regarded as the only definitive diagnosis of the disease. But these same plaques and tangles have been found in autopsies of people who exhibited none of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s . The explanation for this is that these individuals have developed a cognitive reserve that protected them from exhibited the symptoms.

So what should millennials do about Alzheimer’s? The same things that everyone else should do. Maintain physical and dental health and consume a healthy diet. Engage in mental activities that build cognitive reserve. Included here are mnemonic techniques, meditation, and mindfulness. Also use technology to extend your knowledge and to communicate with others. Maintaining and growing social relationships throughout one’s life is important. But “friending” on Facebook should not be regarded as building healthy relationships. And finally, read the healthymemoryblog.

1From the article.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Importance of the Vagus Nerve in Relieving Stress

September 7, 2013

The vagus nerve is the 10th cranial nerve. It connects our brains to our lungs, digestive tracts, heart, and the parasympathetic nervous system. Remember that our sympathetic nervous system alerts us to new things and danger. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for helping us relax and calm down. The stronger the activity of our vagus nerve, the more readily we can assume a feed and enjoy state rather than being stressed out. The strength of this vagal activity is known as vagal tone.

The vagus nerve’s interplay with the heart rate as we breathe can be used to infer vagal tone. Inhaling temporarily suppresses vagal nerve activity. This increases heart rate that helps oxygenated blood circulate. When we breathe out, our heart rate slows. The larger the difference between our heart rate when breathing in compared with breathing out, the higher our vagal tone.

An article in the New Scientist1 explains why we should care about vagal tone, and what we can do to improve it. There are physical health benefits. The vagus nerve plays a role in stimulating insulin production. Consequently, people with low tone are not as good as those with high tone at regulating their blood glucose levels. They also have difficulty suppressing inflammation. These factors are association with heart failure, stroke, and diabetes, so it is not surprising that thee is a strong link between low vagal tone and dying from cardiovascular disease. There are also mental benefits. People with higher vagal tone tend to be intellectually sparkier. They are better able to focus their attention and have better working memories.

Naturally, the question is how can vagal tone be improved. Loving kindness meditation was highlighted in the New Scientist article. Buddhist monks will spend hours in this type of meditation. Given the state of the world, one might conclude that their efforts are ineffective. However, regardless of the state of the world, these monks should be in superb physical and mental health. Fortunately, it does not appear that lengthy meditations are needed . Here is the protocol described in the article:

Find a position that makes you feel relaxed, yet alert. With your eyes closed, try to envisage your heartbeat, and then consciously concentrate on your breathing. Now visualize someone—it can be yourself, a loved one, or someone you barely know—and think of their good qualities. Once you are feeling positive towards them, repeat these traditional phrases of loving kindness meditation: May X feel safe: May X feel happy: May X feel healthy: May X live at ease. After a few minutes, let go of X’s image and start thinking nice thoughts about someone else.

The article mentions people mentally wishing happy thoughts to strangers they are passing. Research into this area is fairly new. It does not seem that loving kindness meditation, although certainly worthwhile, is necessary to increase vagal tone. However, it is quite likely that positive thoughts and some type of meditation are important. Some unpublished research has shown that just reflecting on positive social experiences during the day boosts vagal tone. Physical exercise is also likely to be beneficial

1Young, E. (2013.Wishful Thinking, July, 46-49.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Mindfulness Practice: Body Awareness (or Body) Scan

August 4, 2013

The following guidance is taken from the Afterword written by Dr. Susan Bauer-Wu of A Mindful Nation by Tim Ryan, which is a book that the healthymemory blog highly recommends.

“ Here is a wonderful practice, that helps to ground you and tune you into your body, experiencing as it is right now. You may do this practice sitting in a chair or on the floor, lying down, or standing.

  • Allow yourself to settle into a comfortable position in which you feel supported and relaxed, yet will not lead you to fall asleep.

  • You may close your eyes or keep them slightly open with a soft gaze, not focusing on anything in particular.

  • Rest for a few moments in awareness of the natural rhythm of your breathing.

  • Once your body and mind are settled, bring awareness to your body as a whole. Be aware of your body resting and being supported by the chair, mattress, or floor.

  • Bring awareness to different parts of your body. You may choose to focus on one particular area of the body or scan your body in a sequence like this one: toes, feet (sole, heel, top of foot), through the legs, pelvis, abdomen, lower back, upper back, chest, shoulders, arms down to fingers, shoulders, neck, different parts of the face and head.

  • For each part of the body, linger for a few moments and notice the different sensations, their quality, intensity, and constancy.

  • The moment you notice that your mind has wandered, return your attention to the part of the body you last remember.

Age-Proof Your Brain

February 15, 2012

Age-Proof Your Brain: 10 Easy Ways to Keep Your Mind Fit Forever is a recent article in AARP The Magazine.1 Articles like this are summarized periodically in the healthymemory blog. There are many, many things you can do to age proof your brain, but articles like these are helpful in suggesting a manageable handful from which to choose (“31 Ways to Get Smarter in 2012” was a similar posting earlier this year). Some of the ways presented in the AARP article do not readily fall into specific healthymemory blog categories, although most have been mentioned in passing in healthymemory blog posts.

Finding your purpose is a general recommendation strongly endorsed by the healthymemory blog. The AARP article cites a study done at the Rush University Medical Center of more than 950 older adults. The study ran for seven years and it was found that participants who approached life with clear intentions and goals at the start of the study were less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease over the following seven years.

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is implicit, but not usually specifically mentioned in healthymemory blog posts. It is important to Reduce your risks. Chronic health conditions, such as diabetes, obesity, and hypertension are associated with dementia. Diabetes approximately doubles the risk of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. So it is important to follow doctor’s orders regarding diet, exercise and taking prescribed medications on schedule.

It is important to Check for vitamin deficiences. Vitamin deficiences, especially vitamin B12 can also affect brain vitality. Research from Rush University Medical Center found that older adults at risk of vitamin B12 deficiencies, had smaller brains and scored lowest on tests measuring thinking, reasoning and memory.

Diet is another topic discussed infrequently in the healthymemory blog, but as the AARP article notes “Your brain enjoys spices as much as your taste buds do. Herbs and spices such as black pepper, cinnamon, oregano, basil, parsley, ginger and vanilla are high in antioxidants.” Antioxidants are important to brain health. Curcumin, an active ingredient in turmeric is common in Indian curries. Indians have a lower incidence of Alzheimer’s. One theory is that curcumin bonds to amyloid plaques that accumulate in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s. Animal studies have shown that curcumin reduces amyloid plaques and lowers inflammation levels. A study with humans found that people who ate curried foods often had higher scores on standard cognitive tests.

Another diet recommendation is to Eat like a Greek. The Mediterranean Diet rich in fish, vegetables, fruit, nuts, and beans reduced Alzheimer’s risk by 34 to 48 percent in a study done by Columbia University. Omega-3 fatty acids in fish are important in heart health and are suspected of also being important for brain health. Generally speaking, what is healthy for the heart is healthy for the brain.

Exercise is another activity that is good for both heart and brain. According to the AARP article, higher exercise levels can reduce dementia risk by 30 to 40 percent compared to low activity levels. People who exercise regularly also tend to have better cognition and memory than inactive people. Exercise helps your hippocampi, subdcortical memory structures well known to readers of the healthymemory blog (See the Healthymemory Blog post, “To Improve Your Memory, Build Your Hippocampus, and do a search using the term “Hippocampus”.) Experts recommend 150 minutes a week of moderate activity, although as little as 15 minutes of exercise three times a week can be helpful. So Get moving.

And Pump some iron. Older women participating in a yearlong weight-training program did 13 percent better on tests of cognitive function that did a group of women who did balance and toning exercises. According to Tereas Liu-Ambrose, “Resistance training may increase the levels of growth factors in the brain such as IGFI, which nourish and protect nerve cells.”

Say “Omm” refers to meditation. Meditation techniques can usually be found under the healthymemory blog post category “Mnemonic Techniques.” The AARP article discusses a study of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). MBSR involves focusing one’s attention on sensations, feelings, and states of mindfulness. This has been shown to reduce harmful stress hormones. At the end of an eight week study MRI scans of participants’ brains showed that the density of gray matter in the hippocampus increased significantly in the MBSR group, compared to a control group. Studies have found that other types of meditation have also been beneficial. Search the healthymemory blog on “meditation” to find related healthymemory blog posts.

The remaining two recommendations fall under the healthymemory blog category “Ttansactive Memory.” Get a (social) life means interact with your fellow human beings for a healthy memory. The AARP articles mentions a University of Michigan Study in which research participants did better on tests of short-term memory after just 10 minutes of conversation with another person. There are two types of transactive memory. One type refers to the memories of our fellow humans, and the practice of seeking them out and swapping information between our swapping memories is beneficial.

Seek out new skills can involve both types of transactive memory: human and technological. So learning new things from our fellow humans, as well as from periodicals, books, and the internet is beneficial to our brains and our memories. The important point is to continue to grow cognitively and to not just do things that you routinely do.

1http://www.aarp.org/health/brain-health/info-01-2012/boost-brain-health.html

Focusing on Your Breathing

November 20, 2011

A short article1 in Scientific American Mind reported a couple of studies that demonstrated the benefits of focusing on your breathing. One study reported in the May issue of the International Journal of Psychophysiology and conducted at the Toho University School of Medicine in Japan taught research participants to breathe deeply into their abdomen and to focus on their breathing. They did this for 20 minutes. They reported fewer negative feelings. More of the mood-boosting neurotransmitter serotonin was found in their blood. The prefrontal cortex, an area associated with attention and high-level cognitive processing, exhibited more oxygenated hemoglobin.

Another study reported in the April issue of Cognitive Therapy and Research conducted at Ruhr University in Germany examined the effect focusing on breathing had on depression symptoms. The research participants were asked to stay in mindful contact with their breathing and to try to maintain continual awareness without letting their minds wander. During 18 minute trials the researchers asked the participants whether they were successful in doing so. Those who were successful reported less negative thinking, less rumination and fewer other symptoms of depression.

You can do this. You can sit up comfortably and breathe naturally (or deeply, if you prefer). Focus your attention on your breath and feel it in detail, in your nasal cavity, in your chest, and in your abdomen. Don’t be critical if your mind wanders, just try to refocus. With practice, you should improve your ability to stay focused. Try to build up to 20 minutes. Once you become skillful, even a few minutes of this mindful breathing can help you become more calm and collected.

See the Healthymemory Blog Post “The Benefits of Meditation,” for more information. It does not appear that you need to be a Buddhist monk to benefit from meditation. It is thought that even very short periods of meditation can be beneficial.

1Rodriguex, T. (2011). Therapy in the Air. Scientific American Mind, November/December, p. 16.

Glial Cells and Alzheimer’s Disease

May 8, 2011

A preceding post (“Our Neurons Make Up Only 15 Percent of Out Brain Cells”) highlighted the importance of glial cells to brain function. It was based on an article1 in Scientific American Mind, on which this current blog post is also based. The discoverer of Alzheimer’s Disease, Alos Alzheimer noted that microglia surround the amyloid plaques that are the hallmark of the disease. Recent research suggests that microglia become weaker with age and begin to degenerate. This atrophy can be seen under a microscope. In aged brain tissue, senescent microglia become fragmented and lose many of their cellular branches.

One more sign of microglial involvement can be found in the way Alzheimer’s courses through the brain. Damage spreads in a predetermined manner. It begins near the hippocampus and eventually reaches the frontal context. Microglial deneneration follows the same pattern but precedes the advance of neuronal degeneration, Alzheimer and most experts had presumed that microglial degeneration was a response to neuron degeneration. This new research suggests that the senescence is a cause of Alzheimer’s dementia. The hope is that once researchers learn why microglia become senescent with in some people but not in others, new treatments for Alzheimer’s could be developed.

It is also interesting to note the path of progression of the disease. It begins near the hippocampus, a cortical structure critical to memory. Memory loss can be an early indicator of Alzheimer’s. The disease then progresses through the cortex to the frontal cortex. So more memory loss occurs as more cortex is destroyed. The frontal cortex is where most planning occurs. It plays an important role in focal attention. The executive functions of the frontal lobes include the ability to recognize future consequences from current actions, to choose between good and bad actions, to override and suppress unacceptable social actions, and determine similarities and differences between things and events. In short, it is key to higher mental functions.

1Fields, D.R. (2011). The Hidden Brain. Scientific American Mind. May/June, 53-59.

Flavonoids for a Healthy Memory

January 15, 2011

A recent article, “Your Brain on Blueberries1, extolled that benefits of flavonoids on a healthy memory. Blueberries happen to be the most visible food containing these valuable flavonoids. The article recounts a number of empirical studies that show that consumption of these flavonoids does result in improved memory, learning, and general cognitive function. Moreover, it is believed that flavonoids could slow age-related decline in cognitive function.

Flavonoids are powerful antioxidants protecting us from the cellular damage caused by free radicals, which are formed by our bodies during metabolism as well as by pollution, cigarette smoke and radiation. However, researchers now believe that flavanoids primarily affect cognition by interacting with proteins that are key to brain-cell structure and function.

To this point, scientists have identified more than 6,000 different flavonoids. They can be found in fruits and vegetables, cereal grains, cocoa, soy foods, tea, and wine. The table below shows the food sources for different flavonoid groups.

Flavonoid Group Food Sources
Flavonois Spinach, peppers, and onions
Flavones Parsley and celery
Flavonones Citris fruits
Flavonois Tea, cocoa and wine
Anthocyandins Berries, grapes, and wine
Isoflavones Soy foods such as tofu

 Some spices and herbs are also filled with flavonoids. Included here are sage, oregano, and thyme. Recent research has indicated that these compounds might also be beneficial to mood as well as our mental facilities.

Clearly there are many opportunities here to boost our memory, learning, and general cognitive function. Moreover, there is the potential of slowing age-related decline in cognitive function and of bneficial effects on mind. It would be foolish for us to not take advantage of these opportunities.

Of course, the Healthymemory Blog believes that there is no one magic bullet.  Cognitive growth should be a goal.  To this end learning new information and cognitive exercise are key components. 

1Franz, M. (2011). Scientific American Mind. January/February, 55-59.

Is Dementia an Inevitable Part of Aging?

August 22, 2010

This blog post is another in the series inspired by the book, The Scientific American Brave New Brain.1 That book presents a table contrasting the way the brain once was regarded, the way it is presently regarded, and some conjectures about what tomorrow might hold. According to Brave New Brain in the past, Alzheimer’s Disease and loss of brain function were regarded as inevitable parts of aging. Although the awareness of the widespread plague of Alzheimer’s Disease is relatively knew, many if not most people regarded the loss of brain function as a normal part of aging. It was thought that just as the body wears out, the brain wears out.

According to Brave New Brain today it is believed that “active brains retain more function than inactive ones, even to some very elderly people.” Even as parts of the brain decline, the neuroplasticity of the brain results in the enlisting of other parts of the brain to compensate for this decline. The Healthymemory Blog post “HAROLD” discussed this compensation. An important part of the current belief is that active brains retain more function than inactive ones. That is, inactive brains do decline as a result of aging. So here the old belief maintains. If you are passive and mentally inactive you can expect to lose brain function. The brain is analogous to the body: use it or lose it.

According to Brave New Brain, in the future Alzheimer’s disease is reversible and curable in many cases. Let us hope that this is also true for other forms of senile dementia. The question is how far into the future will this be the case. Are all of us baby boomers safe. I’m afraid that already some of us baby boomers have succumbed. Will the tale end of the baby boomers be safe? Let’s hope that cures and effective treatments will be developed as soon as possible. Otherwise the effects will be truly devasting.

The good news is that we do have a fighting chance. Active brains retain more function than inactive ones. Although there is no absolute guarantee that an active brain will not succumb Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia, but the odds of succumbing are decreased by staying mentally acted. Moreover, you have the option of increasing your mental activity. Even if a cure for dementia were found, and let us up that there will be a cure, keeping mentally active and growing cognitively are still worthy goals on their own. They should result in a richer, fuller life.

The Healthymemory Blog is devoted to promoting healthy mental activity. It has three themes. One is the provision of knowledge about how memory works and how it fails to work. And it offers remedies for these failures. The blog posts are found in the Memory: Theory and Data category. Another theme is the use of mnemonic techniques. These posts are found, appropriately enough, under the category of mnemonic techniques. These techniques not only provide a means of improving memory, but also provide exercise that keeps the brain active. It is recommended to start at the beginning, bottom of this category as techniques become more difficult as you advance upwards. The third theme is Transactive Memory. Blog posts under this category provide suggestions for using technology and other people not only to maintain cognitive health, but also to foster and extend cognitive growth well into old age.

1Horstman, J. (2010). San FranciscoJossey-Bass.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Epigenetics

August 18, 2010

This blog post is another in the series inspired by the book, The Scientific American Brave New Brain.1 That book presents a table contrasting the way the brain once was regarded, the way it is presently regarded, and some conjectures about what tomorrow might hold. According to Brave New Brain, we once thought that environment determines mental potential and that today we think that genes determine mental potential. Here I must take strong exception to Brave New Brain. There were some philosophical arguments that the mind began as a blank plate, tabula rasa, and that experience was written on that plate. The father of behaviorism, John Watson, argued that he could take an infant and raise it to be anything, a butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker, a physician, a lawyer, another psychologist. For him the environment determined everything and that if the proper environments were provided a child could become anything.

Even before Mendel discovered genes, there was the notion of blood and royalty. Certain people were regarded as inherently superior to others. When genes were discovered, some thought that there might be a scientific basis for this superiority, and that genetics could account for individual differences. According to Brave New Brain, that is the current belief. This is certainly not the case. Early in the twentieth century intelligence tests were developed. Arguments as to know much intelligence is attributable to genetics and how much intelligence is attributable to the environment raged. Charges of racism entered these arguments and charges and evidence that IQ tests were culturally biased raged. It should be noted that there are statistical techniques and research designs (controlled identical twins studies, for example) that allow estimates of what percentage of intelligence is genetically determined and what percentage is due to the environment. But these are statistical abstractions. Nature (genetics) and nurture (environment) are inextricably intertwined; they never appear in isolation.

The recent birth of the study of epigenetics has highlighted the interaction between the environment and genetics. The genome cannot be considered alone. Another layer of information stored with the genome is called the epigenome. It is a chemical switch that determines which genes are activated and which genes remain dormant. It does not alter the genetic code, but affects the specific expression of genes. It shuts down or revs up the production of proteins that affect mental states.

Today we know the role of epigenetics. The question for the future is how well can we develop our understanding of epigenetics and whether we can use it to enhance brain function. Research using mice provides reasons for optimism. One study involved mice that were born with genetic disorder resembling mental retardation. They were given a drug that activated epigenetic activity three hours before a training session. They exhibited no learning problems. So perhaps someday mental retardation might be remedied via epigenitic manipulation.

Drugs are not necessarily required for epigenitic manipulation. Researchers at MIT restored mouse memories by enriching the rodents environment. Not only were memories restored but evidence of epigenetic activity was found. Research on the benefits of enriching environments was done years ago, but that was before anyone had ever heard of an epigenome.

1Horstman, J. (2010). San Francisco” Jossey-Bass.