The brain is a mysterious thing. Its complexity has dogged researchers and the drug industry for decades, and its devastating diseases—Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, ALS—largely elude effective treatment.
Ann Romney, speaking at Fortune’s Brainstorm Health conference in Laguna Niguel, California Tuesday afternoon, said when she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 1998, she thought she’d “never have another good day.” She found that medicine helped manage her disease, but it was non-traditional therapies—reflexology and mostly, riding horses—that actually made her feel better. She has since become a major advocate and backer for the study of brain diseases. (The Ann Romney Center for Neurologic Diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston opened in 2014.)
While much remains mysterious about disease, Rudy Tanzi, Vice Chair of Neurology and Director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital, said we know more than you might think about how to keep our brains healthy.
He explained that the scientific community has made tremendous breakthroughs in recent years. We now understand that neuroinflammation—or inflammation of the nervous tissue—is what is so damaging to the human brain, and that it plays a major role in Alzheimer’s. (In terms of the memory-robbing disease, he describes neuroinflammation as “the forest fire;” the amyloid plaques that have traditionally been blamed (and targeted by drugmakers are mere “matches” in the analogy.)
The good news, he added, is that there are proven ways that we can reduce that inflammation and help keep our brains healthy. The better news is that they’re simple and immediately doable. He has helpfully dubbed these techniques: SHIELD.
Tanzi explained you should strive for eight hours of shuteye per night. “If you can’t get it done continuously, take naps,” he said.
Don’t let stress overwhelm you.
Stay social. Loneliness is a stress factor.
It removes inflammation and plaque from the brain. Working out also causes new nerve cells to be born in the hippocampus—the battle zone for Alzheimer’s.
Learn new things
“The more synapses you make, the more you can lose before you lose it,” said Tanzi.
The Mediterranean Diet, which is high in fruits, vegetables, olive oil, and whole grains and involves eating proteins occasionally, is best for your brain, said Tanzi, adding that your diet, and its effect on your microbiome, matters a lot as it has a profound effect on neuroinflammation.
Tanzi stressed that these are “things you can do now,” and importantly, “These are choices you make that determine where you’ll be in the future.”