Canadians suffer from degenerative neurological conditions. Within a generation,
the number of people with dementia in Canada will double to over one
Mental disorders and addictions are also disorders of the brain. Depression
is now the second leading medical cause of disability worldwide. More than
one-third of one-million Canadians suffer from depression each year, resulting
in greater burden (measured by early death and disability) than breast, colon,
lung and prostate cancer combined.
Clearly, there is no health without brain health. Although our brain controls
all aspects of our daily lives, it still remains a mystery. We do not understand
much of how the brain functions normally, never mind in brain diseases and
disorders. That is why brain research is so important.
The Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health, where I work, holds
clinics for people with Alzheimer’s, mood disorders, multiple sclerosis,
Parkinson’s disease, and other brain disorders. Run jointly by the University of
British Columbia and Vancouver Coastal Health, the hope is that all the clinics
will share both clinical and research facilities to truly integrate laboratory
and clinical neuroscience with a common goal to bring the latest in brain
science to the people suffering from these conditions.
Because it’s still such a mystery to most people, I asked my colleagues there
– renowned neurologists, neuroscientists, physicists, psychiatrists,
psychologists, and rehabilitation specialists – for their best tips to maintain,
preserve and enhance brain health.
The first tip was “choose your parents wisely.” Okay, not quite practical
advice, unless you have a time machine, but family history and genes play a role
in most brain disorders. Genetic contributions are complicated, though, and most
only result in an increased vulnerability or risk for a brain disorder.
Huntington’s disease is one of a few notable exceptions, where a genetic test is
More good news is that we know, for the most part, we are not slaves to our
DNA. Much research, especially in the field of epigenetics, has shown that our
environment can alter the functions of genes. Researchers are more optimistic
that we can overcome or modify genetic vulnerability to brain disorders. We also
now know that neurogenesis, or the growth of new brain cells, occurs throughout
Many simple activities can help promote neurogenesis and improve brain
health. So, here are the real brain tips:
1. Exercise your body. Many studies show that cardiov
exercise increases neurogenesis and improves memory and mood. Brain scans done
after weight training also found increased activity in the brain areas involved
with memory. But check with your doctor or physiotherapist first before
beginning vigorous exercise.
2. Exercise your brain. In the tradition of “use it or lose
it,” regular brain activity helps to maintain brain health. Read, take a class,
do a sodoku. There are fancy new computer games that claim to increase your
brain power, but research will show whether they are better than simply doing
3. Sleep well. There is a lot of scientific evidence that a
good night’s sleep for seven to nine hours improves health, memory and mood.
Keeping to regular sleep and wake times, having a consistent bedtime routine,
and avoiding light before bed time can all help to ensure a restful, healthful
4. Talk to a friend. Fulfilling social relationships can
protect against dementia and depression, so cultivate your friends and
5. Eat ”Mediterranean style.” A Mediterranean diet rich in
antioxidants not only helps your heart, it can also be good for your brain. Your
diet should be high in legumes (beans, peas, lentils, soybeans, etc),
vegetables, fruits and unrefined cereals, moderate in fish and dairy products,
and low in meat. Oh, and moderate use of olive oil and red wine helps make this
6. Challenge yourself. This tip comes from the
rehabilitation specialist. Whether mentally or physically, work to a goal
slightly beyond your current capability. Reaching for the stars may not be
realistic, but challenging your goals can activate your brain and body.
7. Appreciate beauty. After all, why live longer with a
healthy brain if all you do is think?
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