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Think brain health in this year’s holiday gifts

As we approach the Thanksgiving holidays and the buying spree known as Black Friday, new findings in medical science can help guide our purchases to improve rather than hurt the persons to whom we have chosen for gifts.

While there has been considerable research in middle school and teenage children regarding “screen time,” the newest study in preschool children published in JAMA pediatrics showed conclusively that preschool children exposed to screen time score much lower in several skills once they reach school.

Researchers are able to noninvasively image the white matter of the left side of the brain which is responsible for language skills and writing skills, two of the most important skill sets children need to explore learning in a school setting.

The white matter tracts in the children were weakest in those exposed to screen time in preschool age and strongest in those children who were not exposed to screen time. In addition, the researchers measured functional ability and the same children with high screen time performed poorly on standardized test of language comprehension, utilization and composition.

That is important, as, unfortunately, the American Academy of Pediatrics recently relaxed its restrictions on screen time recommendations for preschool children. It appears the pediatricians were incorrect. It has long been known that screen time in older children is counterproductive to optimal school performance, which can impact a child for a lifetime.

What does that mean for those of us who have children as an important part of our life? Rather than succumb to the child’s whims for smartphones, computer games, personal televisions, and social media access, responsible adults will steer their children toward board games, card games, games of dexterity, crafts and physical activity.

While the most critical time for brain development and amassing neural connections occurs between birth and the early 20s, ongoing research in the adult and geriatric brains continue to show the need for expansive rather than reductive activities throughout life. For many adults, focusing upon the skills that drive our jobs becomes all-encompassing, to the eventual detriment of our mind and body. There is a wealth of research in geriatrics and healthy aging that demonstrate the need for ongoing new stimuli for good health and mentation.

Taken together, dementia research has shown that most any chronic disease — such as diabetes, high blood pressure, alcoholism, tobacco use, obesity and high cholesterol — predisposed to early dementia.

That makes sense, as the brain is dependent upon healthy physiology as much as the rest of the body that the aforementioned medical conditions destroy. Most recently, as also reported in JAMA, high blood pressure during adulthood leads to earlier dementia as we age — another good reason to get annual physical exams.

As most physicians can tell their patients, there are medications that can only slow the progression of dementia once it occurs, in cases where dementia is detected at a mild-to-moderate degree.

No medication will help patients with severe dementia.

Further, the geriatric literature has demonstrated many medications taken for symptoms in adulthood can unfortunately harm the brain long-term. Harmful medications include anti-allergy medications, urinary incontinence medications, antipsychotic medications, and most sleeping pills, which are also known as anti-anxiety medications.

In addition, medication dosage must be decreased as we age, because the body does not clear the medications as quickly. A safe medication at 40 may be toxic at age 65.

Fortunately, there are activities one can pursue to protect the brain from degeneration.

Maintaining and expanding social interactions, such as volunteer work, church and synagogue activities and services, and entertainment involving social interactions, such as playing cards and board games, can all help keep the brain healthy.

Regular physical exercise is important to the brain for many reasons, and some variety thereof is important. For example, daily walking or bike-riding is helpful, but adding a different type of exercise, such as swimming, yoga, or tai chi is also important.

Lifelong learning more directly stimulates the brain. That can be accomplished through reading books or listening to audio books (preferably of varying genres), learning a new language, learning a new skill, and taking courses at a local community college.

For entertainment, attending concerts, symphonies, and live theater is preferable to computer and television time.

In summary, during the next few weeks, as we celebrate with thankfulness that which Providence has provided and the beginning of new life as celebrated by the birth of Christ and the winter solstice, let us keep with the spirit of these celebrations and focus our activities and gifts on those things that help rather than harm those we love.

Dr. Allan P. Frank is a physician at Northern Health & Wellness.