Sunday, January 28, 2007

Unhappy Meals from Michael Pollan

Everyone should read "Unhappy Meals" by Michael Pollan in today's NY Times Magazine. As Pollan summarizes in the very first line, "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Debunking the various "nutritionist" food fads that have appeared over the last 20+ years and including the high-carb, low-fat diets, the no-fat diet, the additive craze to highly processed foods, and the fiber and low-cholesterol approaches, Pollan makes an excellent argument for just food. He reiterates his earlier advice: if there are more than five ingredients, don't buy it. Also don't buy it if there are things in it you've never heard of or can't pronounce.

Pollan makes the case persuasively that we've been held hostage by the "you can eat more if..." crowd. The low-fat, high-carb craze made this country significantly more obese through the 80s and 90s, which then gave rise to the opposite extreme of high-protein and high-fat Atkins diets, no panacea either.

We should just be eating less. Look at all the studies that show that calorie restriction makes us live longer and reduces the probabilities of many diseases, including cancer. We should be eating more leaves and less seeds (grains), Pollan states. We should avoid additives like corn syrup and stick with the real thing: corn kernels. And we should use meat as a condiment to enhance all the vegetables we're consuming.

Pollan states that we know very little about nutrition. And the way we analyze it doesn't really work since we have to isolate vitamins, for example, instead of figuring out how they work together in our bodies for better health. It's an ensemble cast and solo analysis doesn't get us much. In fact, it's led us down the wrong paths time after time (oat bran in the 80s, for example, and margarine as a healthy alternative to butter).

To add insult to injury, medicine reactively deals with the problems of our new approach to eating with more and more palliatives for diabetes, heart disease, and cancer instead of educating folks about diet as a way to prevent these chronic and horrible diseases.

The first time I really thought about meat as a condiment and the dangers of processed food was in the early 80s when I started reading Jane Brody's columns in the NY Times. And then in 1985, I bought her cookbook, Good Food, and I read the entire, huge intro, which discusses all of these topics and more. But the best part are the recipes. I still use my now-tattered copy of Good Food. I love the recipes because they taste good. She never sacrificed taste for any fad but still paid attention to whole grains, low and unsaturated fat, and produced a vast variety of recipes, using an enormous spectrum of foods, mostly vegetables and whole grains. I probably have Ms. Brody to thank for my interest in food and nutrition as a path to wellness (and therefore prevention), my interest in organic foods (because of the additives in the growing process), and just plain good cooking and eating (although I'll admit to being enthusiastic about this part my whole life).

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Creativity and the Brain

Last night I saw Bobby McFerrin in concert, accompanied by 12-singer Voicestra. Those 12 voices included well-known and great voices, like that of Janis Siegel, one of the original singers in the Manhattan Transfer. As the program stated, "Voicestra serves as rich compositional palate for Bobby McFerrin's expeditions into the musical universe." Every single rendition we saw on the stage was totally improvised, thoroughly entertaining, original, and energizing. For those of you who may not know Bobby McFerrin, he started his career with that very famous tune, "Don't Worry Be Happy" and has gone on to become one of the most original musicians in the world, easily moving from classical to opera to jazz to any other kind of music and using his voice as a musical instrument. Improvisation is clearly his sweet spot. He even included the audience in some of the improvisations. My advice: travel for miles and miles to get a ticket to a Bobby McFerrin concert!

As I watched the energy and expertise and great entertainment on the stage, I couldn't help but think about the part that creativity plays in brain health.

And along those lines--thanks to Dave Munger of Cognitive Daily for pointing me to recent research by Eviatar and Just that looked at how the brain processes irony and metaphor. I think we need creative skills to figure out language puzzles like metaphors and irony. Using fMRI studies, the researchers discovered that our brains process common metaphors and ironic statement differently from ordinary language, going beyond the usual language centers (usually on the left side of the brain if you're right-handed) to include different areas on both sides of the brain. For reference, regular literal language all gets translated in the usual language centers. I'm not surprised, given the research that has already shown that creative endeavors and creative people use many parts of the brain for creative expression.

I suspect that is why creative expression gets good marks for keeping our brain healthy and fit and reducing the probabilities of Alzheimer's and dementia. I'm just trying to visualize the fMRIs of McFerrin and Voicestra's brains during that concert: lots of big splashes of color all over both sides, I suspect. I also wonder what happened to our brains in the audience as we watched this creativity in process. We were not passive. We jumped at the chance to interact when McFerrin pointed to us. I bet our brains were pretty busy, too (on both sides).

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Mental Workouts Delay Alzheimer's in Mice

More evidence builds that mental activity can "dramaticlly delay the progress of Alzheimers' disease."

According to Reuters' Will Dunham, "Researchers at the University of California-Irvine studied hundreds of mice altered to make them develop the plaques and tangles in brain tissue that are considered hallmarks of Alzheimer's Disease in people." The mice received "brain training," which in this case was figuring out a maze in water and which was made available four times a day for a week at intervels between two and 18 months of age. The mice that were exposed to this learning had significantly slower build-up of the beta amyloid protein, which has been shown to be the culprit in the "gooey clumping" outside nerve cells. These mice also experienced less build-up of the protein that causes "twisted fibers" in brain cells.

The research results have just been published in the Journal of Neuroscience. Kim Green, one of the researchers, noted that research is planned which looks at the effects of more frequent and intensive learning experiences and whether they might lead to longer effects.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Study Finds Happy Neuron Helped Brain Activity

The Des Moines Register published a nice summary article today by Dawn Sagario about brain health and how to maintain it. In addition to suggestions about learning new languages and physical exercise, the article also described the recently released results of the pilot study led by Dr. Bob Bender, a geriatrician in Des Moines. The study was funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The "Brain Wellness" study included regular, consistent physical exercise, nutritution advice, meditation, and regular mental workouts with Happy Neuron games. The participants who complied with this program had positive results, including significantly more brain activity, as measured by pre-and post-PET scans and clinical examinations. Dr. Bender and his team are very enthusiastic about the potential for prevention, using these lifestyle choices and brain exercises like Happy Neuron.

The illustration above is by Mark Marturello/Register Illustration.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Brain Fitness Buzz

The last couple of weeks have been filled with media reports about brain fitness programs. The NY Times weighed in on the topic on the front page on December 27 with "As Minds Age, What's Next? Brain Calisthenics?" This article was quickly syndicated across the US and around the world (the International Herald-Tribune) and became the number one-emailed article of the week. I think we can say with some certainty that brain fitness is a topic of interest to millions and millions of people. Several blogs picked up the drum beat, too. The Today show on NBC put their own spin on the topic on Tuesday morning. Happy Neuron was one of the programs showcased in the NY Times and on the Today show.

I think it's great that the media is picking up on the very real interests of so many people, who are really thinking hard and searching high and low for good science on keeping their mental edge as the years go by (another way to say prevention of Alzheimer's and dementia). I admit that I was irritated by two comments: (l) "just do crosswords" because we know from numerous research studies that crosswords may be fun but don't do much for the brain--they're just too one-dimensional; and (2) why turn to software for brain exercise? why not do something free like learn a language or learn to play a new musical instrument? Hey, last time I checked, those two learning adventures were far from free.

Let's look at the real value of sites like Happy Neuron. Most of us would prefer to take a walk in the park every day but some days it's rainy or we don't have time so we hit the treadmill. Some days we don't have time for learning the cello or practicing Chinese either so one convenient thing to do is go online and exercise specific cognitive skills, like memory, concentration, reasoning, visual-spatial and language skills--all keys to learning and everyday living.

I'm extremely glad that awareness is building: brain exercise should be a part of a healthy lifestyle just like good nutrition and physical exercise. All are critical to our overall health and quality of life.