Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Q&A with Kristen Willeumier


Photo by Shawn M. Record

Kristen Willeumier is the author of the new book Biohack Your Brain: How to Boost Cognitive Health, Performance & Power. A neuroscientist, she is based in Los Angeles.


Q: Why did you decide to write this book, and what do you hope readers take away from it?


A: This is such a great question, thank you for asking, Deborah. There were three primary influences which compelled me to write Biohack Your Brain.


First, having the vantage point of visualizing thousands of functional and electrical brain images as the research director for the Amen Clinics, a nationally recognized health care clinic that specializes in the treatment of complex psychiatric disorders, I have firsthand knowledge of what dietary and lifestyle modifications result in effective and lasting changes in brain function.


While most people know that they should take care of their cognitive health as they age, they may not have the practical steps on what to do and why it works.


Second, in 2009 my colleagues and I led a groundbreaking clinical trial assessing the long-term damage incurred from playing professional football and, more importantly, demonstrated the ability to reverse some of the damage.


Why is this work important? We now know that those who play collision-based sports are at a higher risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease (AD), with NFL players having three times the risk of getting AD or ALS than the general population.


The only effective preventative strategies for Alzheimer’s and dementia are lifestyle modifications, which need to be practiced as early as possible, well before the onset of clinical symptoms.


The findings from our research in professional athletes were instrumental in guiding patient care, not just for those with traumatic brain injuries and neurological issues but also for those who came to see us who were perfectly healthy but wanted to optimize brain function.


Brain health strategies should not only be adopted by those who are struggling with neurological or psychiatric issues; they should be embraced by everyone, as early as possible. A healthier brain will have a positive impact on your emotional health and well-being, enabling you to lead a more joyful, vibrant, productive life.


More importantly, what you begin to realize is that the state of your mental health and psychological well-being rests on your daily choices.


Third, on a more personal note, my beloved father passed away at 78 with Parkinson’s disease. Prior to his passing, my father shared with me that his tremors first appeared in his mid-50s, but he was very adept at hiding them from the family.


I have such compassion for people who struggle with neurological issues, having to navigate their day-to-day lives with the symptoms associated with their condition. Biohack Your Brain is for everyone who is looking for ways to improve their quality of life no matter what they may be struggling with.


Having spent two decades in the field of neuroscience both in the laboratory and clinical setting, I have seen what is possible in terms of reversing brain aging, and it has had a profound impact on my life and the lives of those I have been so fortunate to work with.


When you harness the power of neuroimaging to show people that the consistent practicing of proper dietary and lifestyle habits can improve the function of their brain, it can be a life-changing experience. This is not just for the individual being treated, but for their entire family.

This book was written to share the wisdom I have gleaned through educating patients on how to live a brain-healthy lifestyle along with the neuroscience to support these practices.


In Biohack Your Brain, I share the stories of clients and NFL players whose lives have been transformed through embracing these practices, and it’s my hope that those who read the book are empowered to begin their brain health journey as well.


Q: You write, "The coronavirus crisis has also made taking care of your brain more imperative than ever before." What advice would you give people during these difficult times?


A: We have learned that SARS-CoV2 is not only a respiratory syndrome; it has systemic effects affecting all body organs resulting in a widespread immune response.


We now know the virus does impact the nervous system resulting in a wide variety of complications that can occur, including loss of smell, loss of taste, increased stroke risk, and encephalopathies, which can cause confusion and seizures.


Furthermore, it is estimated that 50 percent or more of people who have had SARS-CoV2 and were symptomatic but have since recovered (i.e., no detectable trace of Covid in their system) are struggling with lingering symptoms of fatigue, forgetfulness, inability to concentrate, brain fog and a mild form of depression or malaise.


They are functional but not at full capacity, and given that we have no longitudinal data on this virus, we are unable to ascertain the long-term neurological and neuropsychological consequences of the pandemic.


I am heartened by the fact that now, more than ever, people are prioritizing their physical and mental health. With many of us working remotely and staying at home, more people are thinking about their diet and how it impacts their health, with 60 percent of people cooking their own meals and more people embracing a whole-food, plant-based diet.


As the general population is experiencing an unprecedented increase in psychological distress, we are seeing an increase in online therapy and the prioritization of self-care. Research shows that having positive coping skills and good social support is the most protective against psychological distress.


In addition, healthy dietary practices and exercise have been demonstrated to effectively ease depression and stress. The global pandemic is giving us a chance to go inward and reflect on our lifestyle choices and what we have the control to change.


Therefore, implementing protective measures to care for your health and well-being is the most empowering stance you can take at this time.


Q: What would you say are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about cognitive health?


A: This is a wonderful question as there are so many that come to mind. Let’s go with some of the common perceptions about cognitive health. Most people know that engaging in regular physical activity, consuming a healthy diet, participating in continuous learning, and staying socially connected will help protect their brain as they age, but they may not know the practical steps around which exercises and foods are the best at preserving long-term brain function.


When it comes to knowing which exercises that protect cognitive function, we can look to the neuroimaging studies.


For example, sustained aerobic exercise (i.e., running) is better for increasing brain volume in a region important to learning and memory, and improves cognition in those with mild cognitive impairment. It also increases connectivity in brain regions associated with executive function and motor control.


Resistance exercise (i.e., free weights, weight machines, medicine ball), on the other hand, is beneficial to increasing muscle mass, size, and strength but does not have the same impact on the preservation of brain volume. They both play a role in maintaining vascular health, which is why a combination of sustained aerobic exercise and resistance training is essential to optimal brain function.


When it comes to knowing what brain foods prevent dementia, we can look to the epidemiological dietary studies that show clear evidence on cognition.


For example, a 20-year dietary study from researchers at Harvard Medical School in 16,010 adults aged 70 and older found that those who ate blueberries and strawberries had the slowest rates of cognitive decline. They found that eating blueberries or strawberries three times per week lowered the rate of cognitive decline by 2.5 years.  


Being empowered with knowledge and knowing which steps to take that will positively affect brain function is what is most needed at this time.


I think people are also aware that their cognitive health is linked to their cardiovascular health. With heart disease being the leading cause of death in the U.S., the American Heart Association has been aggressively campaigning the importance of managing cardiovascular risk factors, which has a beneficial effect on the preservation of our cognitive health.


Cardiovascular risk factors such as smoking, hypertension, and high cholesterol damage the vasculature and results in excessive oxidative stress and inflammation in the body. These are the same pathways that are implicated in impaired cognition and dementia, so by prioritizing care of your heart health, you are also taking care of your brain health.


I discuss several common misperceptions about cognitive health in Biohack Your Brain, but here are a few people will enjoy learning:


Myth: The adult brain cannot grow new brain cells. The truth is that we can grow new brain cells from adolescence into adulthood in an area of the brain known as the hippocampus, which is responsible for learning and memory. The exciting news is that there are dietary habits and lifestyle modifications that will help us to continue to grow cells into this region of the brain (as well as habits that prohibit growth) into our seventh, eighth, and ninth decade of life. 


The take-home message is that you can change your brain at any age!


Myth: We only use 10 percent of our brain. The truth is that we use all of our brain, and it is continually active when we are awake and while we are in our deepest stages of sleep. In fact, our brain is working just as hard when we are asleep as when we are awake, performing important housekeeping functions including the clearance of abnormally folded proteins that can lead to Alzheimer's, consolidating our short-term memories into long-term memories, and helping us regulate our emotions.  


Myth: Multitasking is a way for the brain to be more organized and efficient. Multitasking, or the simultaneous engagement of different processing pathways, is a division of our attention and is a cognitive demand that often comes with a cost. The truth is that the more we multitask, we are decreasing our brain's ability to maintain focus and sustain attention, reducing our cognitive proficiency and reaction time. This is readily seen when we try to drive and do a secondary task, such as turn the dial on the radio, talk, or text on our phone. Not only does our ability to sustain attention on the road go down, getting distracted puts us at greater risk of an accident. People underestimate their ability to simultaneously allocate their attention to multiple locations, and so it's recommended to focus on one task at a time.


Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: The brilliant creative and marketing team at HarperCollins came up with the title. Given that Biohack Your Brain centers around dietary and lifestyle interventions that make measurable changes in the biological function of the brain as measured by neuroimaging, “biohack” was a fitting title.  


One of the most empowering messages that I share in this book is that people are unaware of the power that they have in their daily choices to protect their brain health. This includes adherence to a Mediterranean diet, proper hydration, foundational nutrient support, regular physical exercise, healthy emotional regulation, cognitive training, getting restorative sleep, and managing stress levels.


In this book, I share with the reader the objective data we have seen in the clinical setting that has been the most instrumental at making measurable and long-lasting changes in brain function in people of all ages.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am currently involved in a research project evaluating the effects of a type of protective equipment for football designed to attenuate shearing stress on the brain and spinal cord.


While most protective equipment cannot prevent subconcussive and concussive injuries, it can provide some safeguards, as reducing the shearing or rotational forces to the brain by even 10-15 percent can be beneficial to these athletes.


Those of us who have done research in professional athletes who play collision-based sports (i.e., football, soccer, hockey, rugby) have discovered that it’s not just the big hits that are causing the post-concussive symptoms and late-life brain issues. It’s the repetitive subconcussive impacts over time that are of concern.


With 30 million children in the U.S. participating in organized sports, and 3 million children between the ages of 5-18 exposed to repetitive impacts from football on an annual basis, there are many young, developing brains that are in need of protection.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: “Normal brain aging” is used to describe a process where we lose more neurons than we create, and many scientists who have studied volume changes in the aging brain report that the process begins in adults as early as their 20s.


Therefore, the time to be proactive is now if you want to prevent the loss of brain volume, the thinning of the brain’s cortex, the decrease in white-matter connectivity, and the diminishing neurotransmitter production that can occur with brain aging. The volume of the brain has been shown to decline by 5 percent per decade after age 40, with this decline increasing in those over the age of 70.


Remember, your brain is involved in everything you do, from regulating your thoughts and feelings to storing your precious memories and managing your mood. It governs your ability to intuit, ideate and create while driving your behaviors and coordinating your movements.


Taking care of your brain health is one of the best investments you can make in preserving your cognitive function for a lifetime, and the steps to do it are simple and accessible to all. Biohack Your Brain will walk you through these steps and empower you with effective, preventative, evidence-based strategies to protect your brain. The healthier your brain, the greater your chances of having a productive, joyful, and fulfilling life. 


Thank you so much for your time and your thoughtful questions.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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