The other night when I was allowing myself a moment to do absolutely nothing productive, I opened YouTube for a little low-brow browsing. A TED Talk caught my eye entitled “What you can do to prevent Alzheimer’s” by Lisa Genova. I clicked on it, and surprisingly, it turned out that it gave me one more reason to be glad to be a traveler. And it affirmed my intention to keep traveling as long as I can.
I had kicked back to indulge in pure laziness, and this was far too serious for me at that moment. At the same time, it was a compelling subject for me. It caught my attention because my late father was believed to have had Alzheimer’s disease. For that reason, and some others, I am in a high-risk group. And I certainly want to find out if there are ways to prevent Alzheimer’s.
So, I pulled myself out of my purely slothful mode and prepared to watch and learn something, at the same time thinking, “Boy, this is going to be depressing.” At first, it was a little grim. But by the conclusion of the presentation I was uplifted. What I learned had actually given me a more positive view.
TED Talks are 20 minutes, designed to get to the point quickly. And Lisa Genova did that with this subject. There was some technical stuff, but it was necessary, because explaining the mechanism that is believed to be behind Alzheimer’s helps to understand how you can try to prevent it.
The brain is made up of synapses, about 100 trillion of them, which is a practically inconceivable number. Synapses are electrical connections. The brain loses some of these day by day, but also makes new ones all the time. That’s important, and wasn’t understood before the 1960s.
There is a chemical, a peptide called amyloid beta, that tends to build up between these synapses and solidify into a plaque that blocks the connections between synapses. That leads to a decrease in brain function, and that’s what happens with Alzheimer’s disease.
Lisa Genova told the audience that those who were in their 40s probably already had some plaque buildup. Oh, that’s great, I thought. When do we get to the good part?
Then she described an experiment that was conducted with a group of 678 nuns who volunteered. They were examined physically and cognitively at regular periods over two decades. When they died, they donated their brains for research. And when the scientists conducted autopsies, they discovered something that first surprised and perplexed them. But it led to a better understanding of how to prevent Alzheimer’s.
It turned out that some of the nuns had the physical symptoms of advanced Alzheimer’s but had not demonstrated the mental symptoms of the disease. They had the plaque buildup, but had not had the memory loss normally associated with the disease. This made no sense to them, because according to prevailing theories, the plaque buildup was what caused the memory loss. Hmmm.
What they finally came to was based on the concept of neuroplasticity. The more scientists learn about the brain the more they realize how marvelous it is, and how far it exceeds any computer. Scientists used to believe that the number of brain cells was fixed from birth. Now they know that the brain is constantly making new synapses. Every time you learn something, new synapses are created.
The scientists finally explained the apparent contradiction by theorizing that because the nuns who had eluded the symptoms of Alzheimers were scholars, and continued studying and learning throughout their lives, they built up what is called a “cognitive reserve,” that is, more functional synapses to replace ones that had become blocked. They discovered that people who are “highly educated, engaged in stimulating mental activity and had a high degree of literacy” had “an abundance and redundancy of neural connections.” If you want to keep your brain healthy and ward off the possible effects of Alzheimer’s, she said, “Learn something new.” That’s your best preventative.
She mentioned a few other things to add to your preventative strategy. Cardiovascular health is important to brain health, so keep active, follow the rules for good cardiovascular health.
She recommended what is called the Mediterranean diet as a healthy dietary regimen for good brain and cardiovascular health. And sleep, she said, is very important. She called deep sleep a “power cleanser.” It’s during deep sleep that the brain makes new brain cells and renews and refreshes the brain. So, try hard to get good sleep.
Good sleep, good diet, good exercise, those are the primary pillars of good physical health. But upon that foundation is, I believe, the summit of good brain health – to constantly learn new things. Every time you learn something new, you build new synapses, and help to keep your cognitive reserve topped up.
At that point, I breathed a big sigh of relief.
I have some high-risk factors. I can’t change my age or my DNA. But there are things I can do. And she made me realize that as a traveler, I’ve been following the best possible regimen for brain health for a long time without knowing it. Every time you travel you expose yourself to a constant stream of new things to learn. From the tiniest details, to the most monumental sights. From the shape of an electrical plug, to the nature of an unfamiliar landscape, nearly everything you encounter is new. It’s highly stimulating.
I have always enjoyed the thrill of that experience when you are constantly exposed to new things. I knew that it made me feel great and made me want to keep doing it. But only now am I discovering that travel is one of the healthiest things I could have been doing for good brain health all these years.
I am never exposed to as many new things as when I travel. It’s the most concentrated kind of learning experience for me. It’s a full-dimensional, all-sensory ongoing learning experience. It gives me another reason to believe that travel is one of the best things for everyone.
I read about a Chinese doctor who was 108 years old, but was still very active, lecturing and writing books, and he said that you get energy from being happy, not from what you eat or how much you sleep. As I’ve tested and examined his theory in practice, I have come to believe that it is true. Happiness is the core of good health. And for me, travel – good travel – fills me with a kind of euphoria that I don’t experience any other way.
So there it is: one more reason to be a traveler.
Your humble reporter,