Every single action that guides us, be it reading, writing, watching, learning, planning, thinking, feeling, moving or solving problems, is performed by the “amazing and complex” brain. This is why the strong call, “Look after your brain”, went out from three top doctors on Thursday. It is also why the World Federation of Neurology has [...]

Sunday Times 2

This is about your brain: Use it or lose it

With the World’s first Brain Day just two days away, Lankan experts warn that an idle brain is a shop of many sicknesses. Kumudini Hettiarachchi reports

Every single action that guides us, be it reading, writing, watching, learning, planning, thinking, feeling, moving or solving problems, is performed by the “amazing and complex” brain.

This is why the strong call, “Look after your brain”, went out from three top doctors on Thursday.

It is also why the World Federation of Neurology has declared ‘World Brain Day’, the first of which is to be marked on Tuesday (July 22).

Simple are the measures that can be taken to ensure brain health, points out Consultant Neurologist Dr. Arjuna Fernando attached to the Kalutara General Hospital, explaining that they include keeping the mind active, pursuing new learning, being physically and socially active, giving up smoking, avoiding excessive alcohol, controlling blood pressure and maintaining a healthy diet.

“The thinking about the brain is that if you don’t use it, you will lose it,” Dr. Fernando, President of the Association of Sri Lankan Neurologists, told a media briefing at the Health Ministry.

He urged that as we age we should keep reading newspapers, writing letters, doing crossword puzzles or learn something new. “Learn to send text messages on the mobile, if you don’t know how to or engage in Skyping on the computer to keep the brain active.”

A close look at the brain follows, with the shocks coming later.

Yes, the brain is the most amazing organ in the body but at the same time brain disorders are common as people grow older The three commonest ailments of the brain are stroke, dementia and depression and the statistics are an eye-opener.

n 1 in 3 in any group of people will either get dementia or stroke.

n 1 in 6 in any group of people will get a stroke.

No one is exempt, whatever social, racial or occupational group. It is a level playing field for all, be it those in the developed or developing world. “It is commoner in the elderly,” says Dr. Fernando, underscoring that it is of particular importance to Sri Lanka with its ageing population.

The good news, though, is that these diseases are not only preventable but also treatable.

Dementia is the loss of mental functions such as memory, thinking and reasoning that is severe enough to interfere with the daily functioning of a person’s life, says Dr. Fernando, hastening to add that forgetting something in isolation is not an indicator of dementia.
“There should be impairment in at least two brain functions such as memory loss and impaired judgment or language, in the wake of which comes the inability to perform daily activities,” he adds, citing the example of someone who cannot perform complex tasks or is so disoriented that he cannot find his way back home.

Referring to stroke as the No 1 cause of disability in the world, Consultant Neurologist Dr. M.T.M. Riffsy attached to the Colombo South (Kalubowila) Teaching Hospital, reiterated the need to prevent atherosclerosis (hardening and narrowing of the arteries) which could lead to the stoppage of blood to a part of the brain. “Brain cells will die after three minutes if they don’t receive blood.” he says. The same modifiable risk factors are stressed over and over again — smoking, excessive use of salt, eating food with saturated oil, lack of exercise, being obese and having hypertension (high blood pressure), diabetes and cholesterol.

Control the risk factors and you can be free of stroke, adds Dr. Riffsy, painting the image of the pear and the apple. “Our bodies should be in the shape of a pear but most of us are like apples with the fat surrounding the belly,” he warns, urging people to exercise at least 30 minutes a day for five days of the week.

When starting an exercise regimen, do so gradually and increase it systematically. There has to be a mild pant and sweating when exercising, he adds.

It is the “other side” of the “brain coin” that is flipped by Consultant Psychiatrist Prof. Samudra Kathriarachchi of the Sri Jayewardenepura Faculty of Medical Sciences.

Tackling both dementia and depression, she says that the earlier thinking that nothing much can be done to prevent dementia has changed now. “Research clearly shows that by leading a brain-healthy lifestyle, dementia can be prevented or slowed down.”
Seemingly like an old but important record, she too ticks off what is needed –regular exercise, healthy diet, mental stimulation, quality sleep, stress management, an active social life and prevention of head injuries.

A healthy diet, she says, would include fruit and vegetables across the colour spectrum, lean protein and healthy fats. Eat four to six small meals rather than three large meals and plenty of omega-3 fats. A diet rich in fish, nuts, whole grains, olive oil and fresh produce is good while fast food, fried foods and packaged and processed food should be avoided. Regular consumption of green tea may enhance memory and mental alertness and slow down brain-aging.

“Learn something new,” says Prof. Kathriarachchi, for mental stimulation. “Practise memorisation. Practise the 5 Ws – observe something and report like a crime detective. Keep a ‘who, what, where, when and why’ list of daily experiences. Capturing visual details keeps your neurons firing.”

On the need for quality sleep, Prof. Kathriarachchi points out that the brain requires regular, restful sleep to function at optimum capacity. “Reserve your bed for sleep and sex and ban television and computers from the bedroom.”

Explaining that chronic stress takes a heavy toll on the brain leading to shrinkage of the key memory area of the hippocampus, she urges that the stress response should be met with deep, abdominal breathing to get rid of it. Restorative breathing is powerful, simple and free. It is also good to nourish inner peace.

Meanwhile, “depression as a disorder”, according to her, is when a person has a low mood and other symptoms everyday for at least two weeks. The symptoms may interfere with day-to-day activities.

Disclosing that depression is more common than diabetes, Prof. Kathriarachchi adds that healthy living helps prevent depression. Early identification and treatment which includes medications and psychotherapy are important.

From left Non-communicable Diseases (NCD) Unit Deputy Director, Dr. M. Iqbal; Dr. M.T.M. Riffsy; Prof. Samudra Kathriarachchi; NCD Unit Director Dr. Thilak Siriwardena; and Dr. Arjuna Fernando. Pic by M. A. Pushpa Kumara

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