Dr. Stephen Kiraly extols joy of a healthy brain

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During the early 1980s, Vancouver-born physician Peter Hanson wrote a self-published book that transformed his life. Hanson, who was living in Toronto at the time, mortgaged his house to finance the publication of The Joy of Stress, which focused on how people could improve their health by handling life’s difficulties in a different way.

He drove across the country peddling the book to anyone who was interested, because he was so convinced that it could save lives. A publisher eventually bought the rights to the book; it stayed on the Canadian bestseller list for a year, and has since been translated into 20 languages, according to Hanson’s Web site.

Could history repeat itself? Dr. Stephen Kiraly, a Bowen Island geriatric psychiatrist, recently self-published a book on his area of specialty: the brain. In a phone interview with the Georgia Straight, Kiraly said he spent two years writing Your Healthy Brain: A Personal & Family Guide to Staying Healthy & Living Longer.

It arose out of the Healthy Brain Program, a series of presentations that Kiraly developed nine years ago for people with brain injuries, health-care workers, students, and others. He noted that it was the first program of its kind in North America.

“The brain is an organ like the liver,” Kiraly said. “There are things you can do to make it better, and there are things you can do to stress it or damage it.”

Kiraly, who is also a UBC clinical associate professor of psychiatry, writes that there are eight pillars of brain health and longevity: safety, nutrition, physical fitness, mental activity, sleep, stress management, hormone balance, and treatment of diseases that are risk factors for dementias.

The book is full of facts about the brain, which weighs 1.36 kilograms and contains approximately 100 billion neurons. There are a trillion connections in each cubic centimetre of the brain. Kiraly described this network as a “forest of trees”. The key isn’t the number of trees, or nerve cells, but the connections between them—the synapses.

Sleep and proper nutrition are important, but Kiraly said the best way to build up “cognitive reserve” is to learn new things in nonstressful ways. “That causes the brain to lay down new tracks,” he said. “It increases what we call the synaptic density.”

Kiraly’s book notes that the World Health Organization has projected that by 2040, Alzheimer’s disease—which accounts for about half of all dementia-related diseases—will be the top cause of death worldwide.

“The WHO projected that by 2020, depression will be the second leading cause of disability but major depression is already the primary cause of disability worldwide, years ahead of WHO projections,” Kiraly writes. “If you count depressive illness and other psychiatric illness and all neurodegenerative conditions together, brain disease is already the primary cause of disability and death.”

Kiraly told the Straight that a good way to enhance long-term brain health is to control one’s weight. That’s because obesity is linked to several diseases and conditions that elevate the risk of an unhealthy brain. For example, excess weight can contribute to strokes and to Type 2 diabetes, both of which increase the risk of dementia. In the case of Type 2 diabetes, high blood-sugar levels lead to inflammation of the blood vessels. That can trigger silent mini strokes, which can go undetected but contribute to brain damage by killing brain cells.

Kiraly said that a diet rich in fish, fruit, vegetables, and vegetable oil can reduce the risk of dementia over the long term. “Be on the lean side, and be fit,” he commented. “Basically as far as brain food is concerned, probably the best kind of diet for nutrition is a Mediterranean diet.”

Smoking, as well as alcohol and substance abuse, also elevate the risk of future brain problems. He notes in the book that moderate drinking may prevent some cerebrovascular and cardiovascular disease among some Caucasian populations because they have an enzyme that metabolizes the molecule. But he also writes that alcohol is a nerve toxin that destroys brain cells. And while nicotine is not toxic for the brain, smoking destroys lung tissues, making it difficult for the lungs to supply oxygen—which the brain requires in huge quantities—to the red blood cells.

Anxiety, stress, high and low blood pressure, and depressive disorders are other risk factors for poor brain health, Kiraly writes. That’s because they can compromise blood flow into the midbrain, which can lead to mini strokes. Another risk factor is a chronic deficiency of vitamin B.

Kiraly advocates supplementing your diet with vitamin D, which promotes cell growth in the body and the brain. In his book, he writes that laughter is one of the best cures for stress because it reduces the concentration of cortisol. Kiraly said research has demonstrated that this hormone, which is secreted as a response to stress, destroys certain areas of the brain, notably the hippocampus, which plays a central role in the memory process. Cortisol also destroys cells in the pancreas that produce insulin.

In other words, there’s no joy in stress for those who want to maintain a healthy brain. For more information, see www.healthybrain.org/.

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Gudrun Ludorf
Who knew that we would be able to manage our aging:) ? Other than heredity, it seems, we are fortunate to be able to sustain our overall health by paying attention to our brain as an organ. This is a very useful model. Thanks Stephen. Haven't really had a chance to talk since the NT reunion. I'll definately get your book. G.
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