July 7, 2022

Do This to Keep Your Brain Healthy

Show Notes

On this episode, Chuck Gaidica is joined by Michelle Phalen, program coordinator for the Alzheimer’s Association Michigan Chapter. Together, they discuss what we can to keep our brain healthy as we age.

In this episode of A Healthier Michigan Podcast, we explore:

    • What is brain health
    • What affects our memory and brain health positively and negatively
    • How we can exercise our brains to improve brain health
    • Key aspects of our brain health we should be paying attention to as we age

Transcript

Chuck Gaidica:
This is A Healthier Michigan Podcast, episode 109. Coming up, we discuss brain health and what we can do to maintain it as we age.

Chuck Gaidica:
Welcome to A Healthier Michigan Podcast, a podcast dedicated to navigating how we can improve our health and wellbeing through small, healthy habits we can start right now. I’m your host, Chuck Gaidica. And every other week, we sit down with an expert to discuss topics that cover nutrition, fitness, a whole lot more. And on this episode, we’re going to dive deeper into what we can all do to maintain our brain health as we age from any age. With us today is the Program Coordinator for Alzheimer’s Association Michigan Chapter, Michelle Phalen. Hey, Michelle. Good to have you with us.

Michelle Phalen:
Thanks so much for having me.

Chuck Gaidica:
Oh, you’re welcome. And I know that you’re involved obviously with the Association Michigan Chapter for Alzheimer’s, but you also help with education programs and facilitate caregiver support groups throughout Southeast Michigan.

Michelle Phalen:
Yes, I do. I work with a great team of volunteers to make sure that we have care and support services for all of those affected by dementia.

Chuck Gaidica:
So we’ve all had moments, honest to goodness. I had one of these today where I put my glasses down on a countertop that has a lot of little speckles in it. And I couldn’t see it right away. I’m walking around like where in the world are my glasses. I mean, we all have these little moments, remembering somebody’s name, where did the key fob go for the car? Most of the time, we get our bearings straight and eventually we remember the thought that we thought we lost. But forgetfulness can affect all of us, and I don’t mean that it’s something that’s chronic, or it’s related to the pandemic or otherwise. But is it something we should be concerned about as we age, this idea of forgetfulness?

Michelle Phalen:
Yes. So I guess the biggest thing to remember is that as we age, our brains do change. And so you might notice that your memory isn’t as sharp as it used to be. But the thing to remember is that Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia are not a normal part of aging. So if you are forgetting someone’s name at the supermarket, but can recall it an hour later, or you misplace your keys, but can retrace your steps to find them, that’s completely normal. The problem is, if you are noticing that your memory loss is starting to affect your daily life and you’re having to make modifications in your activities, that’s the point when you should schedule an appointment with a healthcare provider to do some more assessments, to see if something else is going on.

Chuck Gaidica:
So I know from what you’ve told us, that dementia, Alzheimer’s has affected your family. Mine too. And I want to say straight up at the top of this episode, this is not just, and I don’t mean to diminish this, this is not just about getting older. We’re all aging. If you’re 28, you’re soon going to be 30. If you’re 58, you’re soon going to be 60. It’s just a fact of life, but this is affecting people of all ages. And I guess when I say affecting, it’s also affecting our mindsets, like what do we do to get ahead of the freight train? What do we do to improve our brain health as we age no matter what age we’re starting from? So how about we start with the definition? What is brain health?

Michelle Phalen:
Yeah. So brain health is kind of this new hot topic. It’s something that wasn’t really talked about as much before, but it seems to be all over now. So there’s a lot of different kind of working definitions of it. But basically what brain health is, is just taking care of your brain or preserving your cognitive function to ensure that you’re able to complete your everyday activities. And that includes things like speaking and using language, or remembering, or the ability to learn and make judgements.

Chuck Gaidica:
So this thing, and we see people step forward from time to time. I mean, Bruce Willis just did. It was a different form of cognitive stuff going on, but brain health seems to be a pretty wide umbrella that also kind of overlays mental health, which has become a huge topic. Not that it shouldn’t have been, but especially during the pandemic, would you consider your idea of mental health as part of this idea of keeping your brain in good steads?

Michelle Phalen:
Yes. I think when we look at brain health, you have to think of all different things, including mental health, your physical health, and of course, the physical structure of the brain as well, just overall social wellbeing.

Chuck Gaidica:
So if I get up every morning and try, try is a keyword here, I’m going to try to do pushups. So I know that they’re going to have some effect. I can feel the pain. I hope I can see something, some kind of benefit down the road. With brain health, that’s a little different. I mean, we hope we’re doing some of the right things, but let’s talk about this. How do we know what our current state of brain health is? Or is that part of the magic of this? We’re not really quite sure what the baseline is unless we’re having trouble. But yet that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do good stuff to give ourselves good brain health.

Michelle Phalen:
Exactly. It can be a little difficult for each of us on an individual basis to evaluate our current state of brain health. So really the best thing is to just talk with your healthcare provider, whether you have concerns, or even if you don’t have memory loss concerns, and just want to kind of figure out what is and what isn’t normal. But the best thing to remember is a lot of the symptoms that people experience with dementia, maybe it’s trouble balancing a checkbook. Some people have that problem throughout their life, regardless whether they have dementia or not. So when you’re looking at your own brain health, comparing it to just yourself and where you’ve been at other periods of life is really helpful because everybody has different skill sets and different flaws and things. So by comparing yourself to others, isn’t always going to be helpful. So in the short term, basically just talk with your healthcare provider and they can do some additional assessments.

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah. So let’s deal with the pros and cons or we’ll look at it this way, the positives and negatives. When you’re thinking about your memory and brain health, give us some of the negatives, what are things that we may be doing in our lifestyle or otherwise that may not be good for our brain health, may not be apparent right now, but they’re just not good ideas?

Michelle Phalen:
Yeah. So the first one that we kind of think of is, I guess, tobacco use. We know that the heart and the brain are very connected, and so tobacco use can affect your heart and it’s therefore going to affect your brain. So if you’re a smoker, quit smoking.

Michelle Phalen:
Another one is excessive alcohol use. There’s a lot of research to look at whether you should completely omit alcohol, or if that glass of red wine here and there is okay. But basically so far, research shows that excessive alcohol use is where we really need to stay away from.

Michelle Phalen:
And then people with cardiovascular conditions, such as hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, they have a higher risk of developing dementia. So if you have those conditions, make sure that you’re seeing your doctor and those medications that you’re taking, or if you have to follow a diet and that you’re keeping those conditions under control.

Michelle Phalen:
And then another big one is protecting your brain. Traumatic brain injuries can really increase your risk. So wear a helmet when you’re biking and take steps to prevent falls so you don’t fall and hit your head.

Chuck Gaidica:
That’s interesting. You bring that one up because I was out, I was getting my bike out and I hadn’t gotten a new helmet. One of the newer helmets with the codes on it and everything. And a neighbor of mine goes peddling by and he’s got a helmet on. And he says to me, I’m going out without mine. I’m thinking, well, it’s safe until I get the new one. And we stopped and we chatted. He said, “Where’s your helmet?” And I said, “Well, I didn’t get the new one I wanted to get yet.” And he said, “I fell.” And I’m thinking, in my mind, I immediately thought it was some big deal fall like as he was biking. He said, “No, I came home and I was in my driveway and I was going to dismount. The bike had lost, my footing off the pedal. And I tipped over.” And he said, “Sure enough, if I didn’t hit the pavement in the driveway.”

Chuck Gaidica:
But he said, “The helmet protected me.” So we make this assumption that there’s got to be some big event you’re protecting yourself from. And here’s somebody who is living proof. Oh no, no, no. It was like right at home. So I think that’s a great point to pay attention to that. So we’ve got some of these negatives, some of this stuff, and I want to double back on this, comes back to diet or lifestyle, but talk about positives. What are some of the positive things that some of us are doing again, that maybe we don’t even know, but we are employing these techniques or lifestyle changes every day that are good for us and our brains?

Michelle Phalen:
Yeah. So you mentioned diet and exercise. So yeah, exercise is a really important thing for us to do. Again, as your heart gets racing and pumping blood throughout your system, it’s sending oxygen up to your brain, which fuels your brain. And so making sure that you’re getting some sort of walking, running, really any sort of exercise in. The CDC recommends about 20 minutes a day. That’s really helpful for your brain.

Michelle Phalen:
Good nutrition is another one. So many diets are thrown at us, but research so far shows that both the Mediterranean diet, as well as the dietary approaches to stop hypertension, or the dash diet are the best ones. And those focus on a lot of fruits and vegetables, especially leafy greens.

Michelle Phalen:
And then a few other things that you can do, stay social. When you are in social environments, our brain is constantly thinking, because there’s unexpected situations being thrown at us. Keep your brain working. So do things that stimulate your brain, such as reading or learning a new hobby. And make sure that you’re getting good sleep, both quality and quantity are really important.

Chuck Gaidica:
Michelle, a lot of what you’re talking about seems so common sense to a lot of us, like people would hear this and think well, I’m kind of going about a healthy lifestyle already. Well, all the better. I mean, that makes perfect sense.

Michelle Phalen:
Exactly. Yeah. And more and more research is coming out about this field. Again, this is a fairly new field of research, but so far evidence is fairly strong that doing these things, it might not 100% eliminate your risk, but it can definitely reduce your risk of cognitive decline.

Chuck Gaidica:
So let’s go back to healthy diet and lifestyle because you’ve made this connection. We’ve heard this before about good heart health, equal sign, good brain health. We’re also hearing a lot, research about good gut health. So you mentioned a couple of diets. There’s the hybrid to the Mediterranean diet and the other, which is the mind diet. I think it was Cleveland Clinic and Mayo combined, lower salt, but still basically the Mediterranean diet. Are there things that you think we should be doing in terms of adding, you said leafy greens, anything else that would seem to have as you’ve read the research and been exposed to this, anything else that’s having direct impact and lifestyle change? Losing weight? How about that?

Michelle Phalen:
Yeah. I think the biggest thing to focus on is overall health. So of course weight is a factor, but all of us have different weights, different body types. And there’s some people who might weigh more than the average person, but they’re way healthier in terms of exercising and diet. So weight can kind of be, I think, put on kind of the back burner, and focusing more on how much you’re moving, whether you’re taking care of your overall health, are you eating good foods? And yeah, I think those leafy greens are really helpful. And another thing that you can do is replacing fats like vegetable oils and butter with things like olive oil. Simple things like that when we’re cooking can really make a big difference. There’s a lot of nutrients in olive oil and it’s not as high in some of those other bad fats as say those canola and other oils.

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah. Yeah. That’s good stuff. And I think I want to remind everybody, we’ve got a lot of episodes, previous episodes on eating well and mindfulness and exercise. So all of that kind of falls under this umbrella as you started off saying, taking care of your brain. So make sure you take us if you’re listening to this episode, make sure you find the others as well. The idea that we can exercise our brain every day, I’m just saying I play Wordle. I’m kind of hooked. It got me. My wife got on it. And all of a sudden, every day I’m trying to find my five letter word. Is stuff like that really … Are you seeing research that shows if I’m exercising my brain, doing the pushups you know of my brain, is that helping?

Michelle Phalen:
Yes. Research does show that what we call cognitive simulation really does help your brain. And the reason why is because you’re actually building new neuron pathways between the different neurons in your brain. And you’re so you’re fortifying it to prevent against future injury or maybe a brain related disease such as Alzheimer’s. So doing things like Wordle, which I absolutely love as well is really helpful. The typical ones we think of are those puzzles and reading, but you could think of other things like maybe you’re creating a piece of artwork, maybe you’re playing an instrument, or maybe you’re learning some sort of new hobby, or maybe in your job, you’re learning a new project or a new software. It’s really important to remember that trying new things, and things that are challenging, so maybe not doing the beginner level crossword every single day when it’s the same clues over and over, but maybe picking up the New York Times and trying something a little bit more challenging.

Chuck Gaidica:
And you talked about a couple of things that, coming through this era, we’ve been in. The idea of social distancing, being disconnected from other people. That’s got to be something that we’re seeing, a lot of people, we know, are stressing with in terms of their mental health. But maybe eventually it could even be affecting their overall brain health. This idea that we don’t have friends, maybe as many as we do, as we age. And somehow we’ve been told to not go out and be in crowds. You know what I mean? Now, hopefully we’re coming out of that full blown at some point. So that’s not an issue anymore.

Michelle Phalen:
Yeah. That’s another field where of all these different things we’ve talked about. I think there’s the least amount of research is the impact of social interaction. But of course, with COVID now it’s a booming topic of research. And what we’ve seen even in preliminary studies that people living with Alzheimer’s or related dementia, throughout COVID, due to the social isolation, had an increased acceleration in their decline. And so social interaction is really important for those of us who have healthy brains to reduce our risk. But it’s really important for those who already have dementia related disease as well, to make sure that they’re maintaining their brain health for as long as possible.

Chuck Gaidica:
How do you personally encourage your peers, your family members that are close to your age? I know you’ve got to be younger than me. Everybody maybe. How do you encourage people who are coming up through their 20s, 30s, et cetera, that this is a serious topic they need to pay attention to, it’s not just something to worry about 30 years from now?

Michelle Phalen:
Yes. So personally, I always share my story. So I’ve lost all four grandparents to Alzheimer’s. And so more people than we know are affected by this disease. So if you know someone who you’ve lost, by sharing the impact the disease has and how severe it is, that can really get the ball rolling with someone else to think about it. But really the important thing is just to remind people that you don’t have to do all these things at once. Just to incorporating little things each week, you can still have your burger, you could still have your ice cream, you can still sit on the couch all day if you want. But adding a little things each week over time does add up. And research shows even if you are older and haven’t necessarily had a healthy lifestyle, making these changes later on in life can still have some impact on your brain health, but of course your overall health as well.

Chuck Gaidica:
So I appreciate you sharing. And I’m sad to hear that you lost all four of your grandparents to Alzheimer’s. My mom had it diagnosed and my father-in-law was dementia. So both my wife and I have it in the family. Does this weigh on your heart at all? Can I ask you that personal question? Do you walk around thinking about your DNA and your future? How does that affect you?

Michelle Phalen:
Yes, 100%. So the thing is though there’s a lot of things that affect our risk of dementia and the biggest one actually is age. Again, it’s not a normal part of aging, but our risk increases as we grow older. But environmental factors are another thing, your race and ethnicity, but also these lifestyle factors are really big. So I know that my genetics, because of my history, I do have a slightly increased chance compared to others who don’t have Alzheimer’s in their family, but I try to focus on the things I can do. So nutrition, physical activity, sleep, socialization, cognitive stimulation, because those are things I have control over. And I try to talk with my family about that too, because we’re all in the same boat. So we can’t change our genes, but we can do these little things in our everyday life.

Chuck Gaidica:
But you know what? I’m so encouraged by and I appreciate all the research the Alzheimer’s Association does, and I’m encouraged that I guess I lead a positive life anyway. But for your situation, my situation, I’m encouraged that while we can’t change our genes, the research is coming out, showing we still can flip little light switches, through that change in lifestyle or diet or not drinking as much. They’re showing now that we actually do have some effect on what’s being called epigenetics, kind of that micro little switches we can flip and that’s an encouraging direction for me because that means we do have a lot of input in this whole process of aging and better brain health.

Michelle Phalen:
Yeah, definitely. It gives us a little bit more control. And even just talking about these things too. So some people do all these things and maybe they still develop dementia, but a lot of the times it’s at a later age than it typically would’ve been if they haven’t been living a healthy lifestyle. So yeah, it is definitely helpful for us to have a little bit more control and to kind of see our way out of the situation a little bit better.

Chuck Gaidica:
So you can make this anecdotal or personal for what you do, but let’s kind of go back full circle and maybe do a bit of a review. But if there’s something we’ve missed, if we think of every day of our lives, all of us who are listening now for our brain health, what are the things we should be thinking about every day that are doable, they’re part of smart goals and the A in SMART is achievable. It’s something I can really do. What are those things that we should be concentrating on? Again, give us those points.

Michelle Phalen:
First one, physical activity. Again, The Centers for Disease Control recommends 150 minutes a week. That’s just over 20 minutes a day. I go on walks on my lunch break. I can get my 20 minutes in very quickly. You can build up overtime.

Michelle Phalen:
Next one is nutrition. If you don’t want to do the full mind or dash or Mediterranean diets, just subbing in some of those oils with an olive oil or adding some of those leafy greens, certain fruits is really helpful.

Michelle Phalen:
Do as much as you can to remain active and social in your community, talk with other people.

Michelle Phalen:
And make sure that you are doing new, challenging things each day, whether you start your day with a crossword or if you watch Jeopardy at night, even things like that have an impact. So just adding little things each day do build up over time.

Chuck Gaidica:
Yeah. And in this age of binge watching too, I find myself getting hooked on something that I really want to see. And then eventually I sort of think, oh man, I should just get down and lift my weights while I’m watching or multitask. So I think that idea of sitting too much. We’ve kind of come through an era where maybe that’s going to change as well because we’ve seen that sitting is the new smoking. So this idea of getting up and moving, it’s just awesome. Because look at you. You’re saying you’re going out on your lunch break, so you’re trying to pack it all in and you obviously do it.

Michelle Phalen:
Yeah. It’s all about incorporating things and crossing them over. And you mentioned lifting weights while watching TV. And some of these things you can overlap. So you can go on a walk with a friend and get that social interaction and the exercise in at the same time. So it’s really actually easy to incorporate these things.

Chuck Gaidica:
So yesterday I was walking the dog and I was trying to return a call to a friend of mine because that’s one of the ways I multitask and it went to voicemail. So I said, “Hey, how are you? I’m out walking the dog.” And I paused. And I said, “Now let me take that back.” Because she was pulling me at the time. I said, “The dog’s taking me for a walk, give me a call back.” Well, it turned into a funny exchange and we’re still playing phone tag, but he replied, “It’s good to know your dog can take you for a walk.” But those are the kinds of ways that I try to figure out, like I’ve got two phone calls to return. I think I’m going to do it while I’m out letting the dog take me for a walk and it works out great. It’s just a great way to pack stuff into my day.

Michelle Phalen:
Exactly.

Chuck Gaidica:
Well, it’s good to have you with us and thanks for all the good work you and Alzheimer’s Association Michigan Chapter are doing. Any other last points you want to leave us with because you’ve left us with so much great stuff.

Michelle Phalen:
I just want to tell everybody that if you are wanting to learn more about brain health or Alzheimer’s or dementia, you can always visit our website at alz.org or call our 24/7 helpline at 800-272-3900.

Chuck Gaidica:
And I’ve used the helpline when we went through our chapter of this in our lives. So I appreciate there being volunteers and others on the other side of the phone that actually will answer and help you get through. So Michelle Phalen from the Alzheimer’s Association Michigan Chapter, thanks so much for being with us today.

Michelle Phalen:
Thanks so much for having me and thanks all you do with the Alzheimer’s Association as well.

Chuck Gaidica:
Oh, happy to be part of it. Take good care.

Michelle Phalen:
Yes, you too.

Chuck Gaidica:
Thanks for listening to A Healthier Michigan Podcast brought to you by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. If you like our show and you want to know more, check us out. You can go online to ahealthiermichigan.org/podcast, or you could leave us a review or a rating on Apple Podcast or Stitcher. To get new episodes on your smartphone or tablet, even all the old episodes I mentioned, be sure to subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favorite podcast app. I’m Chuck Gaidica, be well.