The benefits of exercising your brain

Have you ever wondered why exercising your brain is important and how you can exercise it to keep it healthy? Research indicates that exercising the brain is like exercising the heart; when we keep blood flowing, we keep ourselves fit.

I spoke with Dr. Mario Dulay, neuropsychologist at the Houston Methodist Neurological Institute, who gave us two important factors on how to keep your brain healthy and in shape, and why doing so is good for you.

Use it or lose it

The more you test and use your brain, the better it will perform. Dulay says that any cognitive stimulation is better than none, so staying physically, mentally, and socially active allows your brain to function better than a less active person.

Brain training featured image
Mentally-stimulating activities reinforce brain cells and the connections between them, and might even create new nerve cells.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, mentally-stimulating activities reinforce brain cells and the connections between them, and might even create new nerve cells. Such stimulating activities consist of games, educational activities and social activities.

Practice makes perfect

Cognitive compensation refers to the idea of practicing tricks to improve cognition. Examples include using mnemonics to remember people’s names, or using a calendar to improve the likelihood of not forgetting.

Dulay says people become more forgetful and lose cognitive abilities as they age. By compensating with tricks or reminders, we help maintain our independence and decrease stress.

In addition, compensatory activities may provide mental stimulation that can improve cognitive function and increase cognitive reserve, or the mind’s ability to resist damage to the brain.

Brain training is all about picking something you love so you'll do it consistently Click To Tweet

Dulay also emphasizes that it’s not just about doing anything; it’s about doing what you love and doing it often.

Here is a list of some suggested activities you can do to help exercise your brain:

  • Read
  • Volunteer or mentor
  • Learn something new; a new instrument, hobby, language, etc.
  • Explore a region or culture of the world that interests you
  • Brain teasers or word games
  • Write a blog
  • Attend a cooking class
  • Play with your grandchildren

Each of these activities can help stimulate your brain; but remember, it’s important to find something you enjoy doing and will consistently do.

How Jacquline survived Chiari malformation

On May 14, 2010, Jacquline Adams, who goes by the stage name Iman Heartandsoul, abruptly woke up from her sleep and began to shake uncontrollably. She felt as if she was losing control of her body, and when she got up, she knew she wasn’t her normal self.

After numerous hospital visits, doctors couldn’t settle on a diagnosis and Jacquline started losing hope. That’s until she came across “Zipperheads,” a Facebook page about Chiari malformation, a condition in which the cerebellum, or the part of the brain at the back of the skull that controls balance, is too small or deformed, which puts pressure on the brain.

Members of the Facebook page shared similar symptoms to the ones Jacquline was experiencing, including headaches, pressure in the head, ringing in the ears, lack of sleep and depression. They advised her to see Dr. Rob G. Parrish, a neurosurgeon at Houston Methodist Hospital.

Chiari malformation MRI
This MRI image shows a Chiari malformation. Image via Wikipedia.

After reviewing a previous MRI, Dr. Parrish diagnosed Jacquline with Chiari malformation. Jacquline recalls Dr. Parrish saying he was stunned that she was still walking considering how advanced her condition was. Soon after her diagnosis, Dr. Parrish performed surgical decompression that resulted in the removal of two inches of her skull and two bones from her neck to make room for her brain. While the surgery is not a cure, in some cases it halts or stops the progression of the disease.

“I decided after my surgery that I would be a fighter, a survivor, and I was determined to bring some well-needed attention to an unknown illness,” Jacquline said. “The more attention Chiari gets, hopefully Chiarians will not have to search and suffer as long as I did just to get diagnosed and treated.”

As a singer, Jacquline knew she wanted to use her talent to financially help parents of children with Chiari. After her surgery, Jacquline recorded and released her own CD, “Determination,” where all proceeds went to helping these families in need.

She also founded a nonprofit, Iman’s Zipperhead Hearts for Chiari, and started an annual benefit concert and fundraiser, An Evening with Iman and Friends. The fundraiser was designed to raise awareness and assist Chiari patients financially, and has received a proclamation from the office of Mayor Annise Parker that declared Saturday, May 9, 2015 as “An Evening with Iman and Friends Day.”

“I have had my ups and downs, my good days, my bad days, but with the support of my husband, children, family and friends, I got better and stronger – mentally, physically, and emotionally,” Jacquline said.

 

Chiari malformation was earlier estimated to affect nearly 1 in every 1,000 people. With the advancement of technology, experts now believe that Chiari is more common than previously thought. To learn more about Chiari malformation, visit this resource page.

Cervical cancer: What women need to know

We all hate that dreaded “c” word. Yes, you know what I’m talking about: cancer. According to The American Cancer Society, an estimated 12,900 cases of cervical cancer will be diagnosed in 2015. Cervical cancer can be successfully treated if detected early.

Dr. Anuj Suri, gynecologic oncologist at Houston Methodist Hospital, gives insight on the disease and explains a curative treatment option women can undergo.

What causes cervical cancer?

Although cervical cancers start from pre-cancerous cells, only some women with these pre-cancers will develop cervical cancer. The human papillomavirus (HPV) is responsible for most cases of cervical cancer. There are over 100 types of HPVs, 15 of which can cause cervical cancer.

While HPV can cause cervical cancer, there are other factors to consider. Smoking, a weakened immune system and giving birth at a young age are all risk factors.

How is cervical cancer detected?

One of the ways cervical cancer can be detected is by using a Pap smear. The goal of a Pap smear is to catch the pre-cancerous cells before they turn into an invasive cancer.

Radical trachelectomy
Radical trachelectomy is a minimally invasive procedure that involves the removal of the cervix, surrounding tissues and one-to-two centimeters of the vagina, but the uterus remains intact

Following guidelines by the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Dr. Suri recommends that women between the ages of 21-29 get a pap smear every three years. For women between the ages 30-65, Pap smears should occur every three years (without HPV test) or every five years (with HPV test).

After the age of 65, pap smears are not needed unless the patient has a history of abnormal Pap smears. If a patient has an abnormal pap smear, the testing frequency changes.

What are the symptoms of cervical cancer?

Symptoms typically do not appear until the cancer has spread to other organs in the body. Symptoms include:

  • Bleeding between regular menstrual periods, after sexual intercourse or after menopause
  • Menstrual cycles that are longer and heavier than usual
  • Excess vaginal discharge
  • Pelvic pain
  • Pain during sex

How is cervical cancer treated?

Cervical cancer is third most common cancer worldwide among women and can often be successfully treated if caught early. Most early stage cancers are treated with hysterectomy or radical hysterectomy. Since younger women who have not completed childbearing are being diagnosed with cervical cancer, fertility sparing options and treatments are becoming available. 

Radical trachelectomy, a robotic treatment, is a minimally invasive procedure that involves the removal of the cervix, surrounding tissues and one-to-two centimeters of the vagina. The uterus is then able to be re-attached to the vagina, allowing women to preserve their fertility and potentially bear children. Dr. Suri performs this procedure on women typically under the age of 35 who still want to have children.

Other treatment options include radiation therapy and chemotherapy.