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Mind Matters: Prioritizing Brain Health

Every month is awareness month for one or more diseases and/or afflictions, and most of us have seen pink this month – pink socks, pink shirts, pink hats, pink bows – in the name of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I am very fortunate not to have a personal or family history with breast cancer (though that’s not to say I assume myself to be immune), so while I have partaken in Susan Komen 5k’s over the years, and I do fully support this worthwhile cause, my heart strings pull me in a different direction every October – that of Lewy Body Dementia Awareness Month.

If you’re remotely familiar with Flash Running Wild, you’ve read about my mother’s diagnosis with and eventual passing from this aggressively progressive dementia, as well as my subsequent decision to go back to school and start a second career as a result. I won’t bore you with that story again now, but what I haven’t mentioned before is the FEAR. Similar I’m sure to the fear any young woman whose mother dies from breast cancer experiences – am I next? Am I predestined to develop breast cancer? So, too, have I had these thoughts with regard to dementia. And while there is typically a genetic component to whether or not one develops dementia – or any chronic disease – there is also a component determined by lifestyle factors. Up to 75% of contributing factors can be attributed to lifestyle choices, in fact. So while I can’t control the genetic aspect, there are plenty of areas that are under my control, under everyone’s control.

I won’t go into the statistics by country, as the figures are scary, but suffice it to say that the United States’ dementia rates FAR exceed those of countries considered far less developed. Finland and the United Kingdom top the list of highest rates of dementia, while the Bolivian Amazon’s indigenous groups have the lowest rates in the world. Do we all need to move to the Amazon to protect our health? Of course not, as the problem lies not wholly within the environment in which we live, but rather in our lifestyle choices. And, for better or worse, the average American’s lifestyle is far different from that of an indigenous Bolivian’s.

So what exactly can we all do to decrease our risk of developing dementia? The keys to prevention are nothing new – in fact, they are principles that are the cornerstones of any healthy living plan. And yet so many of us eschew these principles in favor of convenience, of artificial flavor, of stress. So these principles bear repeating until we get it right:

· Plant-based, minimally-processed diet. I cannot stress this enough, and I am very far from perfect in this regard. This doesn’t mean never treating yourself, or only eating broccoli and spinach at every meal, but the majority of your plate (75-85%) should be comprised of whole foods that don’t come with a list 20 ingredients long.

· Functional fitness. Yes, I’m pushing that concept again. But only because it is so very important – quite literally a matter of life and death – for each and every one of us to understand exactly how much damage extended bouts of sitting do to our health. It isn’t necessary to run a marathon, or train for an Iron Man, or bench press 300 pounds. But it IS important to get off your butt as many times each day as you can. Take up a hobby that involves some natural movement – yard work, gardening, walking with friends, walking a dog, etc., or just walk around the block every hour, on the hour.

· Don’t be a loner. I’m an introvert, through-and-through. I enjoy being by myself and have no problem keeping busy. But I appreciate how – for lack of better term – whole I feel after spending time with good friends and family. Yes, it does take some effort to arrange a get-together, but loneliness begets depression begets anxiety begets deteriorating health. You get the idea.

· Keep that brain ticking! You don’t have to relearn calculus (though, really, doesn’t that sound like fun?), but in addition to challenging your body, you should be consistently challenging your mind. Whatever your brain-teasing fun entails, keep learning throughout life for the sake of learning. Keep reading, keep challenging yourself, and – when your kids ask for help on their homework - maybe consider picking up a pencil (or iPad) instead of saying no.

· Explore the world around you. There is some serious research out there about the mental health benefits of surrounding yourself with nature. Go for a hike, take a leisurely stroll on local nature trails, or just sit outside on a bench breathing fresh air. A little sunshine and the chance to disconnect from screens and reconnect with the world around you – what could be better for your entire body?

· Share the love. I’m not suggesting you hug everyone you encounter tomorrow, but studies have shown that making others smile results in a surge of the feel-good hormone dopamine. So smile at someone today, say a kind word to someone who is struggling, or simply open a door for the person behind you. It’s a win-win.

· Finally, almost as important as what you do to benefit your brain is what you don’t do: limit your alcohol intake, don’t smoke, no drugs, and treat your body with care and concern. You only have one, so treat it well.

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