Keep Your Brain In Shape
Our Interview with Dr. Andrea Wilkinson
Founder and CEO, BrainShape Inc.
Tell us about yourself and what brought you into the world of health & aging.
I have a PhD in Psychology with a specialization in cognitive aging. I have been studying brain health and how mental functions change with increasing age for almost 20 years. As a young undergraduate student (studying Psychology & Gerontology at McMaster University), I did experiential learning placements in locked dementia units in long-term care homes and hospital settings. I saw the worst-case scenario when it comes to cognitive deterioration as I was working with people suffering from mid- to late-stage dementia. Although Alzheimer’s disease and dementia is not a part of normal aging, I wondered – if this is the worst-case scenario in cognitive deterioration , what can people do to keep their brain active and healthy as they age?
I started BrainShape in 2014 right after I got my PhD, because I noticed there was a gap between what magazine and newspaper were saying about brain health and cognitive maintenance and what the academic research publications were saying. I created the BrainShape platform to bridge the gap. In March 2019, I launched the BrainShape Podcast to share the latest research in brain health and interviews with experts in the field of health and aging. It has been very rewarding.
How do you keep your brain in shape?
Exercises increases neurogenesis. Humans grow ~700 new brain cells each day and exercise has been show to double or even triple this number. These new brain cells specifically grow in an area of the brain called the hippocampus (associated with memory + learning). Exercise increases the production of a molecule called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (or BDFN) which helps new brain cells grow and survive
Food & Nutrition:
Food is fuel for both your body + your mind. Eat nutrient dense, whole foods.
Mediterranean diet: lots of fruits and veggies, some dairy (milk + yogurt), minimal red meats (too much saturated fat) and no processed foods. Avoid foods that are high in sugar. Too much sugar in your blood stream can damage your blood vessels (including the small blood vessels in your brain).
The human brain is nearly 60% fat, so we need to consume healthy fats (such as omega-3 fatty acids) to optimize our brain function. Omega-3s are not produced by the body, so we need to consume them (e.g., fish – esp. fatty fish such as salmon, sardines, mackerel; nuts + seed – e.g., chia seeds, walnuts); but, a GLOBAL HEALTHY DIET is more important that individual foods.
We are learning more and more about how the health of your gut directly affects the health of your brain and body. For example, it is estimated that ~90% of your serotonin (“happy” signalling molecule) is produced in your gut and what you eat directly impacts its production. Research has shown the impact of diet on the presence of depressive symptomology – whereby people who at whole, nutrient dense foods show reduced symptoms of depression as compared to a control group.
Social networks are tied to survival – humans have better survival odds when in a group; so, as humans we strive to be a part of a group and get stressed if we are “alone.” Socializing is also a very mentally complex activity. For example, you have to engage in “active listening” – holding in mind what the other person has said while you link it to what you want to say, respond in a meaningful way, etc.
Social engagement also helps us emotionally and can help us feel supported during stressful events
Good sleep is essential. When we are in deep sleep, glial cells turn on and basically clean up the brain; during deep sleep toxic build up from the day gets washed away; without deep sleep, plaques can build up in the brain.
Stress is our bodies response to threat. We were only supposed to have short bursts of stress – but, in today’s world people are stressed a lot and it disrupts our ability to rest and digest. The human stress response includes:
- Increased heart rate
- Increased blood pressure
- Faster and more shallow breathing
- Sugar gets sent out into the blood stream because your brain thinks that you need to fight or flee a predator; but, often we are just stationary.
Constant stress increases inflammation and can damage the memory centre of the brain.
For these reasons, stress management is necessary for brain health (e.g., exercise, breathing exercises, etc.)
What frustrates you most about the flaws of human psychology?
My biggest frustration about the flaws of human psychology is that people haven’t yet come to terms with how powerful their mind, mindset, and perceptions are in creating their reality. Most humans believe that their reality is fixed and there is nothing they can do to change it. Once we accept that our mind, mindset, and perceptions are malleable – we can start to step into our true power and the immense capacity humans hold to create their own reality and transform how they are showing up in their life and the world around them.
How early do we need to start implementing these habits to promote healthy aging? Do we need to start in our 20’s?
It is never too early and it is never too late. Research shows that human cognition peaks in our 30s – but this is just an average. Some people peak earlier, while for others it is later. But, regardless, right now is the best time to start.
For example, if someone learned effective stress management techniques as a young child, that is amazing and will serve them well in their life – but, even as a mature adult, you can learn and implement effective stress management techniques and benefit widely.
The belief that there is a timeline on our evolution and growth as a person is limited and unhelpful. Start today!
Aging typically has a negative connotation. What do you have to say about that?
The lifespan of human beings is longer now than it has ever been in human history.
Negative views on aging come as a result of society prioritizing efficiency and speed – which naturally declines with age. But, people who do things quickly, don’t necessarily do them well. So, it isn’t always the case that speed matters the most.I encourage your readers to do some introspection and reflect on their own ageist beliefs and narratives. People are inadvertently ageist against themselves.
But, the data show actually show that most people start to get happier in their late 50s and into their 60s.
What are your current top 3 book recommendations?
- A life worth breathing by Max Strom
- Non-violent communication by Marshall Rosenberg
- The 5 personality patterns by Steven Kessler
If you could leave our readers with just one piece of advice for healthy aging, what would it be?
Manage your stress and overwhelm. The impact of stress + overwhelm on the brain + body adds up over a lifetime. The damage it does is not talked about enough in mainstream media, but it is profound.
Assessing your own stress levels requires a certain level of honesty and awareness. Identify the circumstances, interactions, dynamics, people, environments, habits, behaviours, etc. that drain your energy and create a sense of overwhelm in your mind + body. Tune in and become more aware of what stress feels like in your body. All humans are different – so, this is a personal exercise, and it has nothing to do with what stresses or overwhelms other people. You are unique. Once you get clear on what creates stress and overwhelm in your mind + body, identify stress management techniques that work for you (e.g., exercise, dancing, movement, music, driving, breathing, yoga, etc.).
Where can our readers find you and your content?
The BrainShape Podcast is available on all podcast platforms or my website: www.brainshape.ca/podcast
Social Media Handle on all channels: @BrainShapeTO