I often get asked for advice on how best to keep our brains healthy. This is usually from my patients who unfortunately have already suffered an injury to their brain from trauma, tumour or a blood vessel abnormality such as an aneurysm. Sometimes it is an even rarer condition that they have been born with.
As with all aspects of medicine, prevention is better than cure. I look forward to an era where preventative medicine will outweigh the so-called traditional curative medicine. For now, the reality is that we mostly treat people who already have a serious illness of the brain.
The healthier are bodies are, the better they can cope with any disease and/ or treatments that they have to endure. From a neurosurgical perspective these are some factors that I believe are important for brain health.
Having a least a moderate level of cardiovascular fitness is desirable. I usually recommend walking regularly, as this is achievable for everyone. It does not require expensive equipment or memberships. It is scalable, as you can walk as much you can manage, and gradually build up your endurance. Don’t be afraid to you use a walking aid to enhance your stability.
The other aspect of exercise that is important is core strength. This improves your stability and makes you less prone to falls.
This is a common question that I get asked about. As you can imagine there is large volume research directed to this question. To my interpretation of the literature available the jury is still out as to what is the best diet, so absolute advice here is controversial.
In general terms a balanced diet is best. The brain does not do well with long term exposure to high sugar intake. It is quite sensitive to salts, but in a healthy body, these can be eliminated. You are best off seeking specific advice from your treating practitioner if you wish to consider a specific diet.
Alcohol intake should be kept to moderate in normal day to day life. In the instance of recovering from a brain injury, abstinence if often advised to allow for optimal brain recovery.
We all do it, and yet is often overlooked in health discussions. The effects of long term sleep deprivation are only just being recognized. Most literature would recommend 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night is optimal.
Being awake for 17 hours straight is equivalent to a blood alcohol level of 0.05%. This as you would be aware is the threshold for drunk driving in South Australia. There are at least some suggestions that sleep deprivation can be linked to Alzheimer’s disease.
Blood vessel health:
About 20% of the blood pumped from your heart will go straight to your brain. The brain is supplied by an intricate collection of blood vessels, that are vulnerable to many of the disease that affect other blood vessels in other organs of your body, such as your heart.
For that reason, it is important to look after your cardiovascular health with regular checks of your blood pressure, heart rate, cholesterol and blood sugar levels. Avoiding smoking either directly or passively is important for your brain blood vessel health as well. Smoking is an important, reversible risk factor, in many cancers and brain aneurysms.
Falls is one of the most important reasons for injury and death, especially as we get older. Avoid going up ladders if you are above 50 years of age. If there is no alternative, make sure that someone else is nearby to support the ladder and call for help if there is an accident. The same applies for anyone working at height at home.
More often than not falls are due to simple trips or slips at home. To work on prevent this, evaluate hazards at home regularly, and address where possible. Wear shoes with good support, and non-slip soles. Make sure that lighting is adequate, and have your eyes checked regularly.
Many places offer falls prevention classes. Keeping your core muscles as strong as possible will improve your balance. Don’t be afraid to use walking aids if you need them.
When are brains start to fail us, we are often the last to realise this. The reason is that the brain can adapt, especially when things are changing relatively slowly, for example a tumour growing over months or years. I have found that often it is loved ones who first notice that things are not quite right.
We can all play a role by being aware, and seeking help if we are concerned about someone close to us.