A New Year means a new chance to notice little things that can help keep our loved ones happy and healthy. Next time Dad says that driving or reading these days makes him tired when he has never mentioned that before, make a note of it. It might be an early sign of neurodegeneration. Although this is a normal part of aging, the idea of neuroplasticity means that we can slow down the progression if we catch it early enough.
Last night, I watched the Functional Forum's livestream on integrative medical treatment of degenerative neurological and psychiatric disorders. Dr. Hyla Cass, a holistic psychiatrist, Dr. Datis Kharrazian, a functional neurologist, and Dr. Pedram Shojai, a doctor of oriental medicine, shared their views on the importance of treating these disorders preventatively and holistically. Dr. Kharrazian emphasizes that the problem in the rising numbers of people diagnosed with neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer's disease, comes from us not looking carefully enough for signs of early degeneration. By the time someone has obvious symptoms and goes through the lab testing and imaging to confirm a diagnosis, the brain damage is already quite advanced.
However, our brains are capable of neuroplasticity. In neurodegeneration, neurons in the brain die, and they are unable to grow back. However, the surviving neurons, through proper nutrition and activation are able to grow larger and reach farther to repair broken connections and connect to other surviving neurons in our brains. This allows us to regain some of the brain function that we had lost.
One of the earliest symptoms of neurodegeneration is brain-based fatigue. If you notice a family member saying that they get tired doing things that require brain usage/thinking as opposed to the fatigue one feels from physically challenging activities, advise them to tell their doctor about these specific symptoms. Other symptoms include getting lost on familiar routes, forgetting everyday things, changes in handwriting, and balance loss.
Make sure to speak to your doctor about the kinds of supplements that you can take to possibly slow the progression of the neurodegeneration. Your doctor might also refer you to a registered dietician. You can also see an occupational therapist to work out the details of incorporating dietary changes into your lifestyle so that eating is still as enjoyable as possible.
Neuroplasticity can only be achieved with activation of the surviving neurons during the specific task that causes fatigue or is difficult. So, "use it or lose it" or "practice makes better." So if you are noticing some memory impairment, pull out a great deck of cards and play Concentration a few times a day. If you notice some handwriting changes, pull out a piece of paper and practice writing your signature or some sentences that you commonly write in your life. If you are experiencing slight balance issues, practice it with some balance exercises. A physical therapist and/or an occupational therapist can provide further assessment to determine the affected tasks caused by the specific kind of neurodegeneration you have and then provide exercises that promote neuroplasticity.