When it comes to the brain, size matters and the bigger the brain the better. So says Majid Fotuhi M.D., Ph.D. who is chairman of the Neurology Institute for Brain Health and Fitness, and assistant professor of neurology, John Hopkins School of Medicine. He is also working on a forthcoming book on this topic with the working title, Expand Your Brain Size.
In a study to be published in the April issue of Nature that will examine the factors that determine the brain’s size with aging, Dr. Fotuhi along with his colleagues David Do and Cllifford Jack, focus specifically on that part of the brain related to short-term memory—the hippocampus. Apparently people with a bigger hippocampus do not develop Alzheimer’s disease. Conversely, in Alzheimer’s disease, the hippocampus is one of the first regions of the brain to suffer damage, with memory problems and disorientation often appearing among the first symptoms.
Happily, there are lots of things people can do to grow their brain bigger and the sooner we start the better. The hippocampus happens to be the most vulnerable to shocks and changes but the most apt for plasticity. According to Fotuhi, if we change our lifestyle choices midlife we stand a far better chance of delaying or bypassing AD altogether. And because are so many factors that can cause brain atrophy, many working together (alcoholism, depression, obesity, PTSD to name a few), it’s difficult to come up with a miracle drug.
The doctor calls for physical exercise and cognitive stimulation. I asked Dr. Fotuhi what he meant by physical exercise and he said 3 times a week and it should be more than lifting shopping bags. “You want to get your body to a state of huffing and puffing.” Take stairs instead of elevators, he suggested. I said I lived on the 21st floor. He said, “Start by going up to the 20th Fl and walk one flight. Next day go to the 19th Fl and walk up two flights. In no time you’ll be walking all 21 flights.” We both laughed at that! I asked him about “cognitive stimulation.” What did he mean by that? He suggested that when you go to the supermarket you try to tabulate the sum of items in your head and see how that figure matches up to the balance at checkout. Luckily I’m a small eater and single so I never buy too many items. Ha ha!
The hippocampus is constantly creating neurons which, if not used, are sloughed off. In other words, “Use it or you lose it.” But don’t just take our word for it. Watch and listen to the good doctor himself speaking recently to Brain World Magazine.