What’s the point of education if you cannot protect your brain’s health?

I write mostly about education because education can serve two purposes, improving the quality of life by providing access to resources and increasing intellectual appetite and capabilities, which also leads to a qualitative improvement of life.

However, we don’t do a very good job at protecting our intellectual abilities. Protection of brain health involves behavior changes and behavior changes are difficult. We tend to incline towards some easy solutions like pills and supplements but pills and supplements don’t do justice. Even better, we blame the genes and so does Popular Science and hence we don’t have to do anything about it since it is not in our control.

But the truth is that it is within our control. Just like managing your finances is within your control, so is managing your health.

Brain gets two major problems: Strokes and Alzheimer’s. This leads to dementia and eventual death. Below is an image which shows the regions of high death rates because of dementia in 2012

Alzheimer's_disease_and_other_dementias_world_map-Deaths_per_million_persons-WHO2012.svg

Deaths per million persons in 2012 due to dementia including Alzheimer’s disease (Red=high)

You can clearly see that western countries are at more risk, countries like USA, Canada, Australia and several countries in Europe.

Are genes responsible for the greater risk? Interestingly, no. Presence of a specific gene called ApoE4 increases your risk for Alzheimer’s but there are countries/populations with much larger densities of ApoE4 presence but far fewer cases of Alzheimer’s. One example is Nigeria (this phenomenon is also touted as the Nigerian paradox).

There are also studies where Japanese people living in Japan have far lower cases of Alzheimer’s compared to the Japanese people living in America, ruling genes out as the major cause of the disease.

Then, what is the reason for high risk? It’s the diet. Higher the presence of animal based products and lower the presence of whole plant-based foods in your diet, higher the chances of strokes and Alzheimer’s.

Let’s delve a little deeper into both Strokes and Alzheimer’s.

  • Strokes: Clogged artery cuts off the supply to a part of the brain, killing that part and rendering that part rather useless, in a stroke. The causes of the strokes are high blood pressure and cholesterol. Here are the steps to prevent strokes:
    • Fiber: eat plenty of fiber. 97% of Americans eat fiber deficient foods. Berries, oatmeal, beans and other whole plant-based unprocessed foods have plenty of fiber.
    • Potassium: eating potassium rich foods like greens, beans and sweet potatoes will cut down the risk of strokes tremendously.
    • Citrus: citrus fruits are antioxidants and they beat the free radicals, hence preventing strokes. Think oranges and limes/lemons.
    • Optimal sleep: sleeping between seven or eight hours a night reduces the chances of strokes.
    • Other antioxidants: herbs and spices play a major role in cutting your risk of strokes. Think oregano, cloves, cinnamon and other spices.
    • Reducing meat, dairy and trans/saturated fats: meat and dairy have no fiber and meat has hardly any antioxidants. Reducing meat and dairy will also lead to reduction in cholesterol.
  • Alzheimer’s: It is believed that Alzheimer’s is caused by the clogging of the arteries inside the brain with atherosclerotic plaque. ApoE4 gene has some role to play since ApoE4 makes the protein which is the principal cholesterol carrier in the brain. However, as mentioned earlier, lifestyle choices have far greater role to play.  Here are the steps to prevent Alzheimer’s:
    • Whole plant-based unprocessed foods: replacing meat, oils high in trans/saturated fats and dairy in your diet with  vegetables, legumes, fruits and grains will lower your risk for Alzheimer’s by lowering your cholesterol and helping with other things as well. Just like stroke prevention, plants and berries have more antioxidants, which combat the free radicals.
    • Spices: Saffron and Turmeric have been found to be helpful in the prevention of cognitive decline.
    • Reducing Gerontotoxins:  Advanced Glycation End products or AGEs accelerate the aging process and elevated levels of AGEs has been found in the brains of Alzheimer’s victims. Meat products have a high amount of AGEs versus the plant products. The style of cooking also matters. Boiling and stewing leads to less AGEs versus the dry heat cooking.
    • Aerobics: Aerobics has been shown to reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

This post will receive some backlash similar to posts which encourage saving money instead of spending. This is because any lifestyle change like eating less meat and dairy is hard. For starters, human beings are naturally attracted to high fat products like meat and dairy, just like sugar, and meat and dairy products are tastier than the average vegetables and fruits. The other aspect is that there are lots of commercial interests in promoting meat and dairy, hence the popular science brainwashing is that animal based products are your only sources of protein. Unsaturated fats are not bad at all and unsaturated fats are available mostly only from plants, hence, this is absolutely not a war against fat. Cutting both bad carbs and bad fats are important. Whole plant-based unprocessed foods will give you both good fats and good carbs and keep your brain healthy for a longer time.

The source of research for this article is the book “How Not To Die” written by Michael Greger, M.D.

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Meditation And Education

These two words are not often taken together and I am going to disclose why they should be.

Meditation is a term which is perceived differently by different people. One of the simplest books which clarifies what Meditation is, is a book called “Mindfulness in Plain English” by Henepola Gunaratana. It tells you exactly what meditation is not before instructing what it is. In plain words, meditation is an activity where a human being monitors and maneuvers her breath, leading to an observation of thoughts with non-attachment. For more details on how to meditate, read the book.

ChildrenMeditate

Meditation leads to lots of short term and long term benefits and have been studied extensively by the scientific community.  For example: A meta-analysis of 47 trials adjusted for all biases and with control groups, proves that meditation reduces psychological stress and enhances well-being. There are some studies done on a related activity- Yoga. A heavily cited experiment conducted to compare the influence of several weeks of yoga training with several weeks of nonyoga–based physical training shows children randomly assigned to the yoga condition performed better on a standard problem-solving test used to assess cognitive function.

With these proven benefits in place, these activities are catching up in the schools as well.

This article in The Atlantic states “Schools have also begun experimenting with the practice and discovering that its techniques can help its students. When a school in New Haven, Connecticut, required yoga and meditation classes three times a week for its incoming freshman, studies found that after each class, students had significantly reduced levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, in their bodies. In San Francisco, schools that participated in Quiet Time, a Transcendental Meditation program, had twice as many students score proficient in English on the California Achievement Test than in similar schools where the program didn’t exist. Visitacion Valley Middle School specifically reduced suspensions by 45 percent during the program’s first year. Attendance rates climbed to 98 percent, grade point averages improved, and the school recorded the highest happiness levels in San Francisco on the annual California Healthy Kids Survey. Other studies have shown that mindfulness education programs improved students’ self-control, attentiveness and respect for other classmates, enhanced the school climate, and improved teachers’ moods.

I think there is enough scientific evidence to warrant the pairing of the words Meditation and Education. My wife who shares my passion of Education and is a long term practitioner of meditation has founded a licensed after school “Damara Kids” in Livermore to integrate Meditation with Education in a holistic way. She reports seeing improvements in the kids in less than two months she has been operating.

My desire is that more schools and child care centers adopt it in their curriculum and provide these invaluable techniques to children to thrive in the difficult yet enjoyable journey called Life.