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It's the Brain, Stupid!

Exercise and Diet Can Help Build Your Brain

There is a fine line between obsession and devotion, and I leap across it often with the grace of a world-class triple jumper.

I was in the midst of my Saturday morning 17-mile run (strike one...this should tell you something right there) and I was listening to a podcast called Science Friday (strike two). I usually don’t need such subtle clues as listening to a podcast about black holes and sperm whales to illustrate that I have the makings of a “psycho” character from a Steven King novel. One of the narrators commented that he loved hot wings and fries. I don’t particularly remember the context in which this was brought up (thinking about it now, it is hard to imagine the relationship between hot wings and black holes), nevertheless, the comment was made and I found myself being put off at the idea of eating those things.  

I was not just casually acknowledging this flittering thought, but I was actually physically responding with gastronomic dismay at the thought of poultry on a stick and batter-encrusted potatoes. My reaction startled me and I pondered, as I took a swig of water laced with just enough GatorAid to flavor it, whether I had once again leaped over the line of normality into a realm usually shared by Jack Nicholson characters and asylum dwellers. Had I fallen into such a hubristic snobbery regarding diet that I couldn’t even tolerate McWhatevers? Or was I secretly craving a Big Mac and repressing my hedonistic urges by being bothered?  

After a couple of miles I had psychoanalyzed myself enough to agree with myself (strike three) that I thought it was more my fear of the ravages of free radicals and cholesterol in the blood stream as a result of consuming the greased bird than it was some deep-seated desire to eat like Henry the VIII.

The Middle-Age Brain

My fears are somewhat justified, as I had just finished a book about the middle-age brain that touted excellent research concluding a poor diet could significantly affect brain function. I have this pathological fear of dementia, so anything I can do to thwart spending my final days drooling incessantly and building Lego reproductions of circles and squares is worthwhile to me. This book also crowed about the neurogenic effect of exercise, showing that old coots who walk or run daily have bigger dentate nuclei in their hippocampus.  

Now I don’t know about you, but being able to say “my dentate nucleus is bigger” gives me a sense of braggadocio. This tiny collection of cells, buried deep in the brain, directly affect one’s ability to recall not only what you had for breakfast but also whether you had breakfast at all. One of the greatest misgivings of aging is the loss of short- and long-term memory, and scientist tell us that there is a direct relationship between the number and connection of neurons in this portion of the hippocampus (a small centrally located structure in the brain) and your ability to recall. One of the best ways of enhancing this area is to get off the “Couch of Doom” and  shake your booty.

The Truth About Brain Cells

For years we thought the brain was a static organ, that no new brain cells were created. What you had was all you had and, once you wiped out a few cells with a binge of Jack Daniels shots and Budweiser, they were gone forever. That’s not the case. The brain can actually generate new cells, but more importantly can generate new connections between cells. It is these connections that promote memory, learning, recall and integration of ideas.  

What is really exciting for us more-mature folks is that this ability continues even into mid-life and beyond.

So you can teach old dogs new tricks and this is enhanced if the old dog eats well and exercises. It turns out that physical activity is one of the best stimulators of neuroplasticity, the repopulation of brain connections, and it doesn’t even take running up hills at 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning. A brisk walk three times a week is enough to get those little brain buggers proliferating like rabbits in a cage.  

Dr. Eaker is an Augusta Ob/GYN  and author. He and his wife, Susan, have twoteenage daughters.

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