Hobbies & Brain Health

With Dr. Rome Walter

Rome Walter

Family Physician

Dr. Walter sees patients at our Cal Oaks location in Murrieta. You can learn more about him by clicking the link below.

The brain is argued to be one of the most important organs in the human body. It houses our intelligence, emotion, memory, creativity, controls our movements, and organ functions. These are all huge components of life that have been shown to diminish if left unattended. So, why are we not more concerned with investing in our brain’s health? 

Our body is a large connected organism dependent on the role of each system to function correctly. When any one part is having issues there is a very high chance that it’s effecting another part or system as well. For example, high blood pressure can cause blood vessels to clog or burst which disrupts blood flow to that area. If it’s obstructing blood flow to the heart, this can cause a heart attack. If the blood flow to the brain is blocked then that could trigger a stroke. High blood pressure is seemingly harmless because it’s so common and very treatable, but its outcome of heart attack or stroke is unfortunately a very real consequence. “…. people with high blood pressure in midlife more quickly developed a condition called white matter change, in which areas of blood vessels in the brain are damaged, compared with those who had normal blood pressure.” (Melnick, 2011). Havivng high blood pressure may not always end in heart attack or stroke, but damage overtime can be just as debilitating. For some perspective, white matter in the brain helps to maintain balance, direction, and quick thinking. These are all very essential parts of life maintained by the brain that have the potential to be diminished by a chronic illness originating in a completely different system of the body. 

Conveniently, the same steps we take to help solve many chronic diseases, like high blood pressure, will provide protection to the brain as well. “In particular, exercise appears not only to protect the brain against the structural and functional effects of aging, but also to assist in repairing or restoring the aged brain.” (Kennedy, 2017). Even if you are 65 and starting to exercise for the first time, the positive effects of exercise could help restore damage done during the sedentary years of life. The same journal goes onto cite a study conducted with participants who were 71 to 80 years of age who participated in consistent physical activity. The results showed the group who maintained the highest level of activity presented the performance equivalent of someone 2-3 years younger in age than the youngest group of participants in the study (Kennedy, 2017).  This is likely due to the successes of exercise in reducing oxidative stress (imbalance of antioxidants and free radicals that can cause tissue damage) and the reduction of inflammation in the brain. So, where to start? Look for local groups in your community that provide senior based classes. Look at your interests and try to intersect them with a form of exercise. Some examples might be walking, running, water aerobics, Zumba, strength & balance, gardening, pickle ball, or tennis. Exercising doesn’t necessarily mean you have to leave your home either. Start by doing body weight exercises in your living room or backyard. Make it a social outing and invite your partner or neighbor for a leisurely stroll around the neighborhood. Even something as small as parking a little farther away from the store to get those extra steps in can make a difference in your physical and mental health. Typically, once you start intentionally making choices to better your health, it will start to translate into other facets of your life as well. Seeing improvements through exercise is a great motivating factor to commit to something a little more involved such as diet.

Taking the initial step to incorporate healthy lifestyle choices through exercise is a big deal, particularly for the aging brain. If you’re ready to take on a little more commitment a possible next step would be taking a look at daily dietary choices. While genetics will always be an influence, we can really put our effort into trying to improve upon our environmental circumstances. Nutrition is an extremely important environmental factor when discussing age-related cognitive decline. With all of the different diets out there its really had to know where to start. Instead of discussing any one particular food plan, let’s look at research that talks in terms of macronutrients (fat, protein, & carbs) and brain health. In 2012 Mayo clinic researchers studied 1,230 people from 70 to 89 years old and tracked their diets over four years. “Those who reported the highest carbohydrate intake at the beginning of the study were 1.9 times likelier to develop mild cognitive impairment than those with the lowest intake of carbohydrates” (Hanson, 2012). Carbohydrates, which process down into sugar for energy, can be found in food both good and bad. Some less than great examples are white bread, refined grains and rice, pastries, fruit juices, and fried foods. Some healthier carbs are vegetables, beans, nuts, fruit, sweet potatoes, and whole grains. The research above isn’t necessarily saying that all carbs are the end all be all too bad brain health. There needs to be a balance and it’s important to be conscious of the carbohydrate-based food you are consuming. Obviously, carbs from a vegetable are going to be much different than carbs from a cake. Be sure to limit an excess amount of bad carbs and sugar in general to avoid causing a decline to your brain health. 

Before we move on from diet, I think it’s important to address a huge shift that has taken place in our understanding of nutrition and the brain. In the late 80s, early 90s, and even into the 2000’s, it has been widely taught that “low fat foods” are a healthier alternative. Low fat substitutes are typically high in sugar and do not satiate you like other healthy, full fat food. What wasn’t taught was that in fact there are different types of fats: Poly and Monounsaturated Fat (good fat), Saturated Fat (in between), & Trans Fats (bad). While transitioning to a low-fat lifestyle, people were cutting out essential good fats as well as the bad. People didn’t realize that fat is an essential nutrient for maintaining their health especially in the brain. To maintain optimal health, it’s important to be consuming poly and monounsaturated fats such as olive oil, avocado oil, sesame oil, flaxseed oil, avocado, olives, nuts, fatty fish (salmon, tuna, trout), and seeds. One specific type of polyunsaturated fat you might be familiar with is Omega-3 fatty acids. Found in fish, like the ones mentioned previously, certain oils, nuts, and other seeds, studies are suggesting that it may play a vital role in maintaining a healthy brain. 

Up to this point, we have discussed the benefits of diet and exercise. More specifically we have looked at the research behind their success in slowing the decline of the aging brain. And yes, they do play a major role, but we are still missing a possible major piece of the puzzle. “Studies have shown that loneliness increases the risk of cognitive decline in older adults’ significant loneliness being more detrimental than episodic loneliness” (Mintzer, 2019). It makes sense that human connection would have such an impact on our health, but it’s not something anyone really thinks about until they or a loved one are experiencing it. As we age, and social circles become smaller, it becomes more difficult to satisfy the brains need for connecting. “…developing social connections is a fundamental need among humans that can enhance brain health and even improve memory. It’s vital to engage in a range of social networks because relying on one may be detrimental and lead to loneliness” (Mintzer, 2019). An easy way to start building a larger social network and fulfilling that interaction is by picking up or getting back into a hobby. Some examples might be, learning a new skill (language), group exercise, crotchet, book clubs, learning to play an instrument, painting, or pottery. Each of these hobbies are accessible almost everywhere and can be done alone or in a group. Not only is the social engagement helpful, but learning a new skill or hobby will also have a positive impact on your brain. When we learn something new our brain starts to form new neural connections which also helps strengthen the existing neural pathways.  This is a testament to our brain’s neuroplasticity. Even as adults our brains can still be altered or changed. 

There is not one perfect formula that will guarantee optimal brain health, but there are a lot of ways that will help. Three huge factors are: exercise, nutrition, and social connection. If exercising or nutrition seems like too large of a first step, try picking up a new hobby first. Once you find something you enjoy, try finding a local group in your area that enjoys it as well. It seems that sharing your passions with other likeminded people will help you feel a greater sense of acceptance and connection. Here at Rancho Family Medical Group we understand the importance of social stimulation. In order to provide a resource for our patients, we have partnered with a local business called Temecula Clay to offer free pottery classes to our senior patients 65 and older. If you are interested in joining the class, please visit our website at www.youcanchoosehealth.com for more information on how to sign up. This is a beginner class, so if you have never tried pottery before this is a great chance to test out a new hobby and kickstart optimizing your brain health.  

Resources: 

Hanson, N. (2012, October 16). Eating Lots of Carbs, Sugar May Raise Risk of Cognitive Impairment, Mayo Clinic Study Finds. Retrieved November 27, 2019, from https://newsnetwork.mayoclinic.org/discussion/eating-lots-of-carbs-sugar-may-raise-risk-of-cognitive-impairment-mayo-clinic-study-finds/?_ga=2.94063197.1908990557.1574896278-692528712.1574896278. 

Kennedy, G., Hardman, R., Macpherson, H., Scholey, A., & Pipingas, A. (2017). How Does Exercise Reduce the Rate of Age-Associated Cognitive Decline? A Review of Potential Mechanisms. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, 55(1). doi: 10.3233/JAD-160665 

Melnick, M. (2011, August 3). Study: 4 Factors That May Shrink Your Brain. Retrieved November 26, 2019, from http://healthland.time.com/2011/08/03/study-4-factors-that-may-shrink-your-brain/.

Mintzer, J., Donovan, K. A., Kindy, A. Z., Lock, S. L., Chura, L. R., & Barracca, N. (2019). Lifestyle Choices and Brain Health. Frontiers in medicine, 6, 204. doi:10.3389/fmed.2019.00204 

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