I had the pleasure of attending the Okanagan Symposium on Brain Health last week, an annual event put on by BrainTrust Canada here in Kelowna. It was a fabulous gathering of both participants and speakers to explore the importance of thinking about our brain as an organ of the body that we should take better care of. The opening speaker, Dr. Stephen Kiraly is a neuropsychiatrist and the author of Your Healthy Brain. He developed the Healthy Brain Program, which gives information about longevity and health span, brain health and why we need it now, more than ever. He describes eight pillars around staying healthy and living longer which include the principles of safety, nutrition, physical exercise, mental exercise, sleep, stress, the role of hormones and the treatment of brain disease itself. As we age, having a good understanding of the staying power of the brain and how we must be cognizant of taking care of it, is very important to improve the quality, not just the quantity of our life span.
To stay well, some changes in our habits are usually necessary and a more focused attention given to what Dr. Kiraly terms our Health Span – how long you live in reasonably good health versus just living a long life. If we really want to fully enjoy the third chapter of life, isn’t it up to us to spend some time learning how to stay healthier as we age and take the necessary steps of action to facilitate that?
The Okinawa Centenarian Study done in 2001 was a fascinating exploration of this tiny Japanese island, that at the time had 427 people over the age of 100 enjoying robust good health. These elderly Okinawans have the world’s longest health expectancy, aging slowly and sometimes escaping altogether the chronic diseases of aging, including brain degeneration, cardiovascular disease and cancer. That is certainly worth paying attention to! The goal of the study was to explore this phenomenon for the betterment of the health and lives of all people and concentrated on the genetics, diet, exercise habits and spiritual beliefs and practices of the Okinawan elders. The secret ingredient that appeared to be making the difference was the Okinawan’s attitude towards food and the manner of eating. They bring a ritualistic attitude, almost a reverence to their eating habits. They don’t eat too much, they eat in a social setting and they take time and bring an ambience of calm into their dining experience. No rushing allowed. If Okinawans move away from their island and take on the frenzied lifestyle of the large Japanese cities, they become susceptible to the same chronic diseases as the average Japanese person and western society. Their caloric restriction, or what is termed “hara hachi bu” is fundamental to their health. Kiraly explains that: “It takes the stomach twenty minutes to signal the brain that it is full. If you stop eating when 80% full and wait 20 minutes, after this time you will not be hungry. The Okinawans avoid distraction while eating, which interferes with the body’s signals to stop. They wait for twinges of fullness.” Dr. Kiraly sums up the lesson from this as, “We should eat at a leisurely pace and it should be a relaxed social event. We should not eat to be full and we should avoid animal protein and fat, except for fish. And of course, drink green tea!”
It really is quite simple, but can you make a shift in the way you eat to keep your brain and your body healthier as you age? I am taking this to heart and making some small changes for myself.
I will be hosting a new weekly radio show called Engaging in Aging on AM1150, airing Sunday, May 29th at 11:00am, then moving to 9:00am from Sunday, June 5th on.
It will focus on things that are small enough to change, but big enough to matter. This first show’s theme is: Understanding the New Paradigm of Aging: Living Longer and Living Well. My guest is neuropsychiatrist Dr. Stephen Kiraly, author of “Your Healthy Brain: A Personal and Family Guide to Staying Healthy and Living Longer”. Call in with your comments and questions on this open line show on AM1150!