The brain is the control center of the nervous system. Every sensation, emotion and movement, both voluntary and involuntary, involves the brain. Though it is only two percent of the body by weight, the brain uses 15 to 20 percent of cardiac output so that it has enough oxygen to function properly. Brain health, therefore, is closely related to the supply of blood to the brain.
To maintain a healthy brain with optimal cognitive functioning, it is important to follow the Protect, Prevent and Increase (PPI) strategy: Protect the brain from external and internal risk factors,Prevent infection and Increase brain connections.
Traumatic brain injuries affect 2.5 million people in the United States each year, resulting in approximately 50,000 deaths and 80,000 permanent disabilities. The leading causes are falls, motor vehicle crashes, object collisions and assaults(1). Head injuries, especially to teenagers and young adults, can be devastating, causing 15 percent of all deaths in people aged 15-25. Half of all head injuries occur in road accidents, and another 20-30 percent in injuries at home or work. Sporting accidents cause another 10-15 percent of head injuries, and assaults are responsible for 10 percent.
Violent shaking of the head can cause bleeding that compresses brain tissue. When this occurs, it can result in the gradual loss of brain function, a change in personality or even death. The skull, the meninges (membranes) surrounding the brain tissue, and the cerebral spinal fluid in which the brain and spinal cord are suspended, are the brain’s primary external protective features against such damage.
The blood vessels that supply the brain are the key to brain health. When the supply of blood carrying oxygen to the brain is cut off for as little as ten seconds, we lose consciousness. Any damage to these blood vessels such as hemorrhages (ruptures) or high blood pressure can result in damage to the brain(6).
A blood clot or stroke can result in paralysis or the death of the brain and connective tissue. Chronic conditions such as arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), which can cause high blood pressure, also reduce the flow of blood to the brain and can result in dementia. In addition, diabetes is also a major cause of dementia(7). A heart-healthy lifestyle, therefore, leads to a healthy brain.
Blood-filled cavities called sinuses help the circulation and drainage of blood. However, the sinuses have no doors or valves. Thus, connections from the veins of the face to the sinuses provide no resistance to the spread of infection to the brain and can become life-threatening. Other veins connecting the brain to the spinal cord can spread infection or cancer cells.
The cerebrospinal fluid helps to protect against infection. Another risk is the accumulation of a protein called beta-amyloid that kills brain cells and is the leading cause of Alzheimer’s disease. A healthy immune system will process beta-amyloid so that it is harmless.
Humans are born with 100 billion neurons. As we age, the brain can lose as much as eight percent of its cells. Surprisingly, the loss of brain cells is not a significant problem. In terms of cognitive function, the real problem is the loss of interconnections between cells.
Neuroscience is increasingly focused on how the brain uses structural connectivity to link neurons to each other, functional connectivity that connects the body’s systems, and effective connectivity, which combines the two. No matter how many healthy brain cells you have, they can’t work well without high quality connections. Activities that require the use of several parts of the brain in unfamiliar patterns encourage new connections.
One in four of us will experience significant cognitive decline in our lifetime. The major cause of conditions such as depression, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and a host of other conditions are external and internal damage to the brain. A heart-healthy lifestyle combined with a strong PPI strategy can significantly reduce the risk factors for cognitive decline and keep your brain healthy and young.
Siphiwe Baleka - Contributing Writer, Physician's Choice