American Society on Aging

30 | Spring 2015 • Vol. 39 .No. 1

GENERATIONS – Journal of the American Society on Aging

Copyright © 2015 American Society on Aging; all rights reserved. This article may not be duplicated, reprinted or distributed in any form without written permission from the publisher: American Society on Aging, 575 Market St., Suite 2100, San Francisco, CA 94105-2869; e-mail: info@asaging.org. For information about ASA’s publications visit www.asaging.org/publications. For information about ASA membership visit www.asaging.org/join.

More individuals than ever before are taking the time to learn about the human brain and the many ways they can shape it for health. This might mean reducing stress and anxiety, increasing balance and emotional well-being, enhancing memory or focus, increasing energy and creativity, and living a life that is socially, cognitively, spiritually, nutritionally, and intel- lectually integrated.

Some may still believe the human brain is a rigid and fixed system capable only of degen- eration. Others may think that while leading a healthy lifestyle is not harmful to the brain, it provides minimal value because we have no cure for neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheim- er’s. The study of neuroscience, however, has expanded to embrace a new understanding of the human brain—one indicating that individu- als can take personal control in shaping their brains for health.

This issue of Generations addresses the idea that people now are aging on their own terms, exerting more control over their health and well-being. Brain health is a particularly impor- tant part of this goal because the brain is the epicenter for nearly all of the human body’s functions. Much of what well-being and health refer to is a person’s sense of being and remain- ing in balance emotionally, psychologically, phy-

sically, and spiritually. A brain that is in bal- ance can function at near-peak potential and directly promote health. There now is renewed interest in this mind−body interaction and the potential power the human brain has over the body, simply through mindset (Clark et al., 2014; Newberg and Waldman, 2010). Man is the only animal that can guide his thoughts to generate feelings of happiness or misery.

The implications for brain-centered or empowered health are enormous and beyond our complete understanding at this time. How- ever, neural energies represent a great new frontier for using the brain to shape the body’s health and functioning (Nussbaum, 2010).

In this article, I will underscore the impor- tance of brain health and how each person has the opportunity and empowerment to shape their brain for health. This information is biased by my personal take on brain health that focuses on lifestyle, and that has been developed and applied over the past fifteen years (see www. brainhealthctr.com). The material shared in this

By Paul D. Nussbaum

What does it now mean to have a healthy brain, and how might people foster one for better, more self-empowered aging?

Brain Health for the Self-Empowered Person

Baby boomers particularly prioritize preventing loss of memory and preserving cognitive health.

Self-Empowered Aging

Spring 2015 • Vol. 39 .No. 1 | 31

Copyright © 2015 American Society on Aging; all rights reserved. This article may not be duplicated, reprinted or distributed in any form without written permission from the publisher: American Society on Aging, 575 Market St., Suite 2100, San Francisco, CA 94105-2869; e-mail: info@asaging.org. For information about ASA’s publications visit www.asaging.org/publications. For information about ASA membership visit www.asaging.org/join.

Pages 30–36

article will build on the 2011 issue of Generations (American Society on Aging [ASA], 2011) about the “Neuroscience of the Aging Brain,” which reviewed the scientific basis for lifestyle and brain health.

Defining Brain Health Neuroscience has taught us more about the function of the human brain in the past twenty years than in our entire history, and the general public is more educated on the basics of the brain. While it is true that we still know very little about the brain and that we have no cure, or even pre- vention, for neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, we do have the ability to shape our brains with lifestyle choices that foster a healthy brain (Nussbaum, 2003).

Self-education and self-empowerment for brain health are critical because most surveys indicate that baby boomers particularly priori- tize preventing loss of memory and preserving cognitive health (ASA, 2006). A first step for the field of brain health is to agree on a consistent definition of brain health. I define brain health as: “The result of a dynamic process in which a person engages in behaviors and environments to shape the brain toward a healthier existence.” This definition underscores the important re- lationship between the environment and the person at a neuropsychological (brain and behavior) level, and it puts the focus on the individual being empowered and able to shape his or her brain toward a healthier existence.

Core concepts of brain health Self-empowerment begins with education, and the following information encapsulates several core concepts of brain health:

Brain health needs to be a comprehensive and holistic approach because the brain is a highly complicated system that is cognitive, emotional, motoric, spiritual, and behavioral.

Plasticity refers to a brain that is highly dynamic, constantly reorganizing, and malleable. Plasticity enables the brain to be shaped by a

multi-sensory spectrum of environmental input that includes thought.

Brain resilience is a product of plasticity in which particular parts of neurons (brain cells) react favorably to environmental input by devel- oping increased dendritic formations and cellular connections (synaptic density). This translates into a type of intellectual or cognitive protection that represents health and also helps to poten- tially delay onset of disease (Wilson, 2011).

Neurogenesis is another product of plas- ticity in which new brain cells are generated. The human brain demonstrates neurogenesis primarily in the hippocampus, a structure critical for new learning and spatial reasoning (Eriksson et al., 1998).

My Brain Health Lifestyle (Nussbaum, 2003; Nussbaum, 2007) involves a proactive and lifelong application of specific behaviors that are organized into five major domains: physical ac- tivity; mental stimulation; spirituality; social- ization; and, nutrition.

Brain Health is not about disease preven- tion, but about leading a lifestyle, supported by science, that helps to promote brain resilience and facilitates emotional, cognitive, motoric, spiritual, and relational health. It is a proactive process that is lifelong and not limited by age. Further, Brain Health represents a deeply per- sonal journey of self-discovery, and trial and error, and emphasizes a focus on lifestyle to reach peak potential, integration, and to maxi- mize access to our life story.

Novelty and complexity are two critical factors necessary for brain health. If a person makes a point to take on new and complex tasks, there is a good chance that he or she will be en- gaged in an activity that stimulates resilience and brain health.

A brain exposed to an environment with proper input and care (such as activities that promote brain resilience, reduce stress, provide proper nutrition, etc.) will function closer to peak potential and can result in more positive outcomes in the classroom, boardroom, on the

GENERATIONS – Journal of the American Society on Aging

32 | Spring 2015 • Vol. 39 .No. 1

Copyright © 2015 American Society on Aging; all rights reserved. This article may not be duplicated, reprinted or distributed in any form without written permission from the publisher: American Society on Aging, 575 Market St., Suite 2100, San Francisco, CA 94105-2869; e-mail: info@asaging.org. For information about ASA’s publications visit www.asaging.org/publications. For information about ASA membership visit www.asaging.org/join.

Pages 30–36

athletic field, in relationships, and will most likely increase inner peace and balance.

Taking Personal Control of Brain Health: A Call to Action Health promotion involves changing our be- havior, and humans resist change. Consider how hard it may be to make such changes as sitting in a different chair at the dinner table or sleeping on a different side of the bed. These are small, but difficult, challenges. Wellness programs typically result in low compliance, even though most of us understand that leading a healthy lifestyle is good for us. Why do we resist? My belief is that a change in behavior requires two factors: First, a person needs to understand why change is necessary. Second, the change needs to be personal.

Brain health is as personal as it gets because adopting a self-empowered healthy lifestyle for the brain involves a direct shaping of one’s iden-

tity and personal development. A person’s brain contains his or her autobiography—a life story that is a most precious gift. Brain health means maintaining access to that life story for as long as possible so it can be shared with others. Leading a proactive brain-healthy lifestyle fosters such access.

A brain-healthy lifestyle Research is robust on the relationship between particular behaviors and brain structure and function. My work on the Brain Health Lifestyle has been to integrate this research into a mean- ingful brain-healthy lifestyle, organized in five integrated domains, to educate the general public and permit individuals to apply such a lifestyle (see Nussbaum, 2010). This lifestyle is about health promotion, not disease prevention or clinical intervention, and involves an ongoing self-inspection of one’s lifestyle as well as an openness to change. The following provides a

Brain Health Begins with Education

A basic education about the brain is crucial for anyone seeking to shape his or her brain for health. To that end, the following are basic facts about the brain:

• The human brain weighs about three pounds.

• Each brain has hundreds of millions of brain cells connecting with nearly 10,000 other brain cells.

• The brain is nearly 60 percent fat that insulates nerve tracts to rapidly transmit information between cells.

• The brain demands 25 percent of the blood from each heartbeat.

• The brain continues to learn, create, and produce—regardless of age.

• The cortex (grey matter) is the site of conscious information processing, while the limbic system and subcortical structures (white matter) tend to help with emotional, procedural, and subconscious processing.

• The brain is affected by sleep, nutrition, education, stress, anxiety, mood, pain, safety, poverty, fear, love, hope, and many other factors, all of which promote or impede brain health.

• Lifestyle remains a critical factor for overall health (Kvaavik et al., 2010) and for brain health (Barnes and Yaffe, 2011).

• Female and male brains process information differently.

Self-Empowered Aging

Strawberries

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