Your brain’s bank account

Paul David Nussbaum has nothing against Valentine’s Day, but he’d like to emphasize that it’s the brain, not the heart, where love dwells.

‘The whole notion

‘The whole notion

Paul David Nussbaum has nothing against Valentine’s Day, but he’d like to emphasize that it’s the brain, not the heart, where love dwells.

“Our identity, our hopes, our emotions, everything we love comes from this amazing organ that weighs between two and four pounds, the greatest miracle ever designed,” said Nussbaum.

“The brain — it’s who we are. It’s very personal.”

Nussbaum is a clinical neuropsychologist and adjunct professor of neurological surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

He tours extensively as a speaker on the subject of brain health, and has a new book out, Save Your Brain.

Ten years of research led him to develop a twofold approach to educating people on the importance of making lifestyle changes that will ultimately help mental fitness.

It’s no accident that an early part of the book presents an easy-to-understand breakdown on the parts of the brain and its particular functions.

“First, they have to know how it works,” Nussbaum said. “Second, you have to make it personal.”

Nussbaum diagrams his approach as a lifestyle “pie” with five equal pieces. The first three — socialization, physical activity and mental stimulation — are also proven factors that influence brain development in animals.

The remaining two pieces — spirituality and nutrition — address aspects of the human condition. Overall, he writes, people have the chance to stave off the ravages of Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia or brain disease through smart changes in lifestyle.

“You don’t have to do everything at once; I’m into the baby-step process, taking it a little bit at a time,” said Nussbaum, who speaks extensively on the subject nationwide and maintains a wellness blog at

Until 1998, it was not known that people, at any age, could continue to build the brain-cell connections Nussbaum refers to as “reserves.” Learning to knit, speaking a new language, joining a yoga class, figuring out how to change the oil in your car — all of these are good for the brain.

In Save Your Brain, Nussbaum uses the imagery of flying low over an ocean. Look out the window and you might see land covered in dense forest. Look again, and there might be a lonely island with one tree on it.

These trees are our reserves.

If they are grown and cultivated over the course of our lives through stimulation, mental challenges and creative endeavors, then the brain is better protected from the virtual weed whacker that is Alzheimer’s or dementia.

People with few reserves — those who cling to the same boring-if-comfortable daily routine, making few social or spiritual connections — would be more susceptible.

He cited a long-term University of Kentucky study begun in 1986 that involves 678 women, the Sisters of Notre Dame. These nuns, who have agreed to donate their brains to science after death, have been with their order since they were young women.

The group represents an extraordinary opportunity to consider a large control group that basically shares the same history in terms of occupation — 85 percent were teachers — lifestyle and diet. In addition, these women’s complete health records and family history are available.

They have kept diaries throughout their lives, and evaluation of content and grammar can serve as a key to determining how creativity factors in maintaining lifelong mental health.

Physical activity is important in maintaining brain reserves, said Nussbaum, who notes that 25 per cent of blood flow from each heartbeat is used by the brain. At the same time, the brain is a high-fat organ (almost 60 per cent) that needs “good” fats every day to insulate nerve tracts and cells, helping the brain’s rapid process of information.

Save Your Brain includes a section on nutrition, as well as brain-smart recipes stressing Omega-3 fatty acids and high-antioxidant foods such as blueberries and spinach.

If stress is bad for our brains, consider the importance of spirituality. Nussbaum writes that people who practice their religion regularly report better health, but even a nonspecific approach through meditation and breathing exercises is beneficial.

No matter your age, he said, it’s not too late to build reserves.

“The whole notion, this business about the brain having a critical period of development from, say, 3 to 5 years old, is laughed at now,” he said.

“The brain is a physical organism that will react (to stimulation) at any age.”

Building reserves, he added, is not a cure. But it can stave off ill effects, such as the loss of memory.

“My work right now is geared toward the mothers and fathers at the dinner table,” Nussbaum said, “and toward maintaining access to their life’s story.

“And really, your life’s story is your most precious possession.”

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.

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