Wednesday, December 7, 2022

NEUROPLASTICITY: Eight Reasons We All Need to Learn About Brain Health

 Written by: Marilyn Abrahamson, MA,CCC-SLP - CBHC (Certified Brain Health Coach)

NEUROPLASTICITY is defined as the ability of the nervous system to change its activity in response to intrinsic or extrinsic stimuli by reorganizing its structure, functions, or connections after injuries, such as a stroke or traumatic brain injury (TBI) - NIH.GOV

The word Neuroplasticity ignites a feeling of hope. For clinicians and therapists working with patients with all types of brain injuries, understanding neuroplasticity is crucial. Because neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change and adapt in response to new learning and new experiences, it can change both a clinician's choice of therapeutic techniques as well as the duration of the patient’s therapeutic program. 
We now know that, even in the absence of brain injury or illness, teaching people how to help their brain to more easily adapt, change and grow as we age is the key to maintaining cognitive health. That’s how we remain sharp and resilient into our advanced years, but there’s more to it than that.  The answers to the following seven questions will help us to better understand why brain health education is so very important to all of us. 
Why is it so important for people to teach others about brain health?  The brain is what makes us who we are, producing our every thought, and every action. It stores all of our memories, feelings, and experiences.

The brain resides quietly in our heads, is relatively low maintenance, and is grossly taken for granted. Teaching people about brain health raises their awareness of the need to take a more active role in preserving the health and wellness of this amazing resource.

Knowing that there are actionable tasks, such as adjusting lifestyle choices and habits to support a healthier brain, can offer the clarity and the direction people need to begin to make those adjustments.
Decline is a natural aspect of normal aging, but how do we know what’s normal and what should spark concern? Age-related decline is normal for any part of the body, but when talking about normal brain-aging, many believe that the word “decline” implies the presence of impairment. With that in mind, a more appropriate word to use could be  “change” to describe the process of brain aging. People with brain injuries, memory disorders and neurodegenerative diseases may ultimately enter a state of “decline”, where functionality gradually wanes over time. If a person in decline is going to improve, it takes exceptionally hard work for rehabilitation of skills to take place.

With general age-related “change”, many of us can simply compensate and adjust how we use our brain by implementing strategies and targeted techniques for better memory, organization and completion of more complicated tasks.  Compensatory strategies and techniques allow us to work around change by doing tasks differently, more mindfully and more efficiently. By adjusting our habits  and learning to roll with the changes, we can help our memory and thinking skills to work well again - in many cases, as well as they worked before.

With that being said, there are aspects of cognition that do naturally change with age, and one of the first is processing speed. For example, if you’re watching a game show, such as Jeopardy and you know the answer, but the buzzer rings before you can say it, your processing speed may be starting to slow down. This is considered normal. Attention also becomes more elusive as the brain ages and it may become more difficult to focus and pay attention. Reduced attention may cause us to miss parts of conversation, particularly if we’re in a distracting environment. This can also be contributed to by other sensory changes that occur as we get older such as problems with vision and hearing, both of which allow us to acquire information from the environment around us.

When do “lapses in memory” become more of a concern? People generally worry about things that should be less of a concern. Word finding and name recall are the most bothersome aspects of brain-aging, and what people complain about the most. This problem tends to start at a young age, with many beginning in their 40’s.  It is considered normal, especially if we’re able to retrieve the correct name shortly after. Problems with word finding and name recall become more of a concerning issue if we find ourselves persistently calling people and objects by generic names such as “honey” or “whatchamacallit”. But if this is not a pattern, it’s generally nothing serious.

People also tell me that they are concerned because they frequently misplace personal items.
Misplacing items, even if this happens frequently, is not necessarily a cause for concern. This habit is not exclusive to the aging population. We’ve been misplacing things since childhood. If you have children, you know they misplace things every day. After putting in minimal effort to find their lost belongings, they called you (their parents) to find the items for them. Interestingly, as parents, we generally always knew where they were!

However, if misplacing items occurs persistently, AND the objects are ultimately found in locations that show a mindful placement of the item in a grossly inappropriate place, it may be a sign of something more serious.  Taking the time to place a basket of freshly folded laundry in the kitchen pantry would likely not occur unless there was cause for concern. This would warrant a visit to the doctor.
Misplacing items, and later finding them placed mistakenly on a table or in a jacket pocket, would likely just call for mindfulness exercises, a memory strategy and better habits to help keep track of them.

(To be continued)

"5 Negative Antigen Tests Do Not Match How OFF I Feel..."
An IPHA Editorial Submission

In August of 2021, David (last name withheld) arrived home from his job at the local hardware store and within minutes of entering the front door, collapsed with a most unusual set of symptoms including acute exhaustion. Following the national guidelines, taking a PCR test showed that he was 
hit with the Coronavirus Delta Variant! The flu-like symptoms all hit simultaneously in full force.  David saw stars for most of his recuperation period while taste and smell were completely shut down. For 1 week, David quarantined in his office - armed with every super-food, every kind of soup and immune booster his support team could find.  Being fully vaccinated only meant he had a better chance of NOT DYING, but as the world was only a year into the data collection, there was still so much left to understand about the recuperation period as well as its long standing effects.

FAST FORWARD to the fall of 2022. Life goes on and regular rapid  (home) testing says David was negative every time. Tracking the latest in covid news reports, the idea of lingering symptoms is in the back of everyone's- especially those who got hit at least once with the virus.  But HOW or WHERE in the body is it?  To over-think this does not make one a hypochondriac- only someone surrendered to the realities of our times, meaning 'if it doesn't kill you, the viral load may have the tendency to linger, causing  potential organ damage, failure or dysfunction.

They say that you shouldn't worry about getting dementia or Alzheimer's- once you have it, you won't know it. Well this is not completely true. We can attribute forgetting a name here and there as a natural, normal age-related wear down. But forgetting EVERY name is not the same.  It's as if someone stole or deleted specific data from your brain, and when it's time to withdraw those names to compose a sentence, all there is is an empty shelf where that name was expected to be.  The simplest proper nouns that David once quickly referenced and freely spoken about all his life- including names of product brands, movie and song titles, artists- even celebrities are now GONE- or perhaps buried in the back yard somewhere!

If "it is (in fact) what it is",  David expressed his disbelief that the CDC or the WHO are pressing to come up with Long Haul therapies. "There's still so much to go with perfecting the vaccination to control the global surge. We can choose to fight the erosion in our brain with mind optimizers, exercises, better sleep and every protocol to improve brain performance.  But this very insidious aftermath of the virus that buried itself into my brain is now aging me, starting with my memory, my processing speed and if the data out there is right, my waning cognitive functions. "

(Continued from top feature)

Can we control or change our risk for getting Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia? Yes, and this is what brain health education is all about. Engaging in brain-healthy lifestyle habits can help to reduce the risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia.
 Age-related cognitive changes are directly influenced by brain size. Keeping neural pathways active, and engaging in habits such as lifelong learning, can help sustain healthy brain volume and contribute to the development of cognitive reserve.

What is cognitive reserve and how can we get it by modifying lifestyle choices?  Cognitive reserve is the brain’s ability to be resilient against damage or disease. A prestigious longitudinal research study showed that people who lived a healthy lifestyle and had no apparent symptoms of dementia were found to have brain changes consistent with dementia and advanced Alzheimer's disease on autopsy. This is likely to have been a result of high levels of cognitive reserve, which served to offset the damage, allowing them to function well in life.

Would these people have eventually developed symptoms of dementia had they lived long enough? 
There is a high probability that they would have. Cognitive reserve offers the gift of additional years before the onset of symptoms.  

What lifestyle habits facilitate the development of cognitive reserve and how do they reduce the risk for Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia?

        Exercise: The brain is the greediest organ in the body in terms of the need for blood flow and oxygen. Exercise helps to provide the brain with those nutrients, and also facilitates the release of a protein called BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor). BDNF is instrumental in supporting the birth of new neurons in the hippocampus, the brain region primarily responsible for new learning and memory storage.

        A Brain-Healthy Diet: The Mediterranean Diet and the MIND diet ( a combination of the Mediterranean Diet and the Dash Diet) have been proven to support healthy brain function. This is most likely because of their generous inclusion of antioxidants and Omega 3 fatty acids.

         Sleep: Sleep is important for optimal brain function and for consolidation (movement into storage) of information acquired during the previous day into long term memory. Additionally, sleep is the time that the brain is cleared of plaques that build up throughout the day.

         Stress Management: Effectively managing stress is essential to maintain healthy levels of cortisol which, in large quantities, is destructive to the brain and organs throughout the body.

         Lifelong Learning: Learning something new and interesting every day is essential to activate existing neural pathways and connections throughout the brain and for development of new ones. The more activated neural connections and pathways you have, the bigger and more voluminous your brain will remain!

         Enjoyable Activities: As a bonus, finding something that you love to do and getting excited about it will give your brain an instant boost of motivation to keep learning and growing, in addition to adding a spark of joy each time you do it.

Changing life-long habits is undeniably hard, especially when there are several changes that need to be made. What’s the best way to tackle them and how do we decide what to do first? Change is difficult for people, even when they are keenly aware of the benefits of following through.

To begin, you need to have clarity for why you want to make these changes. Knowing your reasons for doing something is essential before starting. Otherwise, you’re likely to give up if things get tough. Once you’re ready to begin, it is important not to attempt too many changes at once. Make a list of the lifestyle habits you want to change and then choose the most do-able first.  Giving yourself the boost of dopamine associated with accomplishment will be helpful to get the ball rolling. As you begin to engage in these new habits, gradually add one, then another and another.

MARILYN ABRAHAMSON, MA, CCC-SLP : As a Brain Health Education Specialist at Ceresti Health, Marilyn offers initiatives that supports education and empowerment of family caregivers. She also writes for and edits the Ceresti’s monthly newsletter and produces all brain health education and brain-health coaching programs for caregivers.  Marilyn's prior work is as a NJ Licensed Speech-Language Pathologist since 1987 and is an Amen Clinics Certified Brain Health Coach.


10/25/2022- HEALING, STRESS AND THE PARASYMPATHETIC SYSTEM:  Analyzing STRESS & ANXIETY from a holistic point of view means identifying the body’s interconnected systems (ie. circulatory, cardiovascular, nervous, lymphatic, endocrine etc.) and its many touch points for stimulation.   This analysis should also offer a comprehensive breakdown of the body's HEALING capacity- which includes our hormones, digestive system, immune system, brain, heart-- all the way down to our cells and mitochondria.   Stress is part of life, and comes in many forms including physical, emotional, mental and environmental. Foods we eat, unhealthy relationships, difficulties at work, toxins in our environment, even poor posture or lack of sunshine can all create stress on our bodies. (See complete report by: Dr. Roberta Kline)

9/14/2022 - ADDRESSING BURNOUT: RECHARGING FOR CAREGIVERS: During the Covid-19 surge, interviews with emergency medical professionals showed dramatic cases of ICU and ER responders exposed to major signs of advanced fatigue and risk of burnout.  This significantly raised major risks to their work performance where lives are to be affected, including theirs.  Over time, double and triple shifts resulted in "a different type of pandemic" on a national scale- where this level of exhaustion and overwhelm.  (See full report by Dr. Leslie Valle & Dave Dachinger)

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