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ArticleYour Beautiful Brain Makeover

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On November 7, 2018, Altfest Executive Vice President Karen Altfest, CFP®, PhD was joined by Harvard neurologist and author Dr. Marie Pasinski at the annual Women’s Financial $pa®. Dr. Pasinski has been recognized for her research into the health of the brain. Her books, Beautiful Brain, Beautiful You and Chicken Soup for the Soul: Boost Your Brain Power focus on the brain’s remarkable ability to redesign itself at any age. Dr. Pasinski discussed five things you can do to give yourself a Beautiful Brain Makeover.

Karen C. Altfest, CFP®, PhD (KCA): How did you become interested in studying the brain?
Dr. Marie Pasinski, MD (MP): Upon holding a human brain in my hands for the first time, I was hooked. Realizing that every thought, emotion and memory this person ever had was somehow encoded in the structure cradled in my hands, filled me with awe. I wanted to understand its mysteries and miracles.

KCA: Your writing seems addressed to women – How are women’s brains different from those of men?
MP: Anatomically, the male and female brain are indistinguishable and the guidelines for maintaining a healthy brain are the same for both sexes. Male and female chromosomes and hormones exert their effect at a cellular level. Understanding these effects is key to understanding gender disparities in neurologic disease. For example, women are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s whereas men have higher rates of Parkinson’s disease.

KCA: How much effect can your personal habits have on your brain?
MP: The lifestyle choices you make every day impact the physical structure and function of your brain. It is thought that 30% of dementia is caused by modifiable lifestyle risk factors. By making brain healthy lifestyle choices you can significantly reduce your personal risk of dementia.

KCA: Is exercise helpful to developing a healthy brain?
MP: Exercise is one of the best things you can do to keep your brain healthy and vibrant. When you get your heart rate up, there is increased blood flow to the brain. This in turn releases a cascade of brain growth factors including brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which promotes the growth of new neurons and new synapses in the brain. There is a very strong correlation between physical fitness and improved cognition.

KCA: Are there behaviors that can de-rail you from achieving a healthy brain?
MP: As we get older we tend to use our brains in the same way, day in and day out. Stepping out of your comfort zone and challenging your mind with new ideas and new ways of thinking stimulates brain growth and preserves mental flexibility.

KCA: Can younger people practice prevention?
MP: Your brain is like a work of art in progress, it is constantly evolving. It’s never too early or too late to change your brain for the better.

KCA: Can meditation help?
MP: Exciting research shows that meditation physically changes your brain. Studies by Sarah Lazar at Harvard show that after just eight weeks of daily meditation, brain areas associated with self-awareness and compassion increased in volume, while those associated with stress shrunk.

KCA: I enjoyed the “Empowered Thoughts” section in your book, Beautiful Brain, Beautiful You. How can you best exert control over your thoughts?
MP: Exerting control over your thoughts begins by understanding that you have the power to change the way you think. The brain is a creature of habit. The way you currently use your mind and the thoughts you think are a result of how you have molded your brain over time. The beauty of the brain is that you can learn to think differently and replace self-defeating negative thoughts with self-enhancing positive thoughts. Ultimately, this will rewire your brain to serve you better.

KCA: Are there more women neuroscientists today than there were when you went to medical school?
MP: During my medical and residency training, women were severely underrepresented in the fields of neurology and neuroscience. Fortunately, this is changing and it’s exciting to see more women pursuing careers in neuroscience.

KCA: When is it necessary to call a doctor and when can you achieve results on your own?
MP: If you or family members have any concerns that your memory is impaired, it’s best to see your doctor for evaluation. Many reversible medical conditions from vitamin deficiencies and sleep disorders to hormonal disturbances and stress can cause memory problems. At Massachusetts General Hospital, The Henry and Allison McCance Center for Brain Health recently opened to provide a multidisciplinary approach to preventing brain disease and preserving brain function across the lifespan. Our goal is to provide patients with a comprehensive evaluation of their personal brain health risk factors and provide an individualized prescription of what they can do to maximize their brain function. In addition, our patients have access to state of the art clinical trials.

KCA: What can we expect in the future in advancements in neuroscience affecting brain health?
MP: A tremendous amount of research on multiple frontiers is being done to improve brain health and prevent dementia. Previously, much of the research focused on those with advanced disease. We now realize that the pathologic brain changes of Alzheimer’s begin decades before someone manifests symptoms. Consequently, more research is now focused on those at high risk of developing Alzheimer’s or in the early stages of disease. This has provided a new understanding of how Alzheimer’s destroys brain cells and what interventions may limit or stop this destruction. A recent breakthrough by Dr. Rudy Tanzi at Harvard shows that neuro-inflammation amplifies neuronal loss and provides a promising target for future therapies.

KCA: Thank you, Marie.

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