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Dr. NK Venkataramana, Founder Chairman & Director, Brains Super Speciality Hospital, Bengaluru.
Brain is the crown jewel of creation and evolution. Research over a century has made us understand somewhat its structure and function. Yet, it remains unfathomable and elusive. The animals have a programmed brain to take care of food, propagation of species and a fight-or-flight response. The addition of the intellect differentiates the human brain from the rest. Our intellect, imagination, intuition, memory, speech, discrimination and other capacities put us on a different level altogether. Brain is the first organ to develop in the embryo from the neural tube which folds and enlarges into various parts of brain and spinal cord. The germinal cells then generate a series of cells that eventually migrate, differentiate and become specialized to undertake a variety of tasks.
Thus brain takes care of internal needs, external demands and social interactions. The first two years of our life witness tremendous growth of the brain and the wires get insulated (myelination) and ready for electrical transmission. The blood vessels sprout in abundance to take care of the metabolic needs. The neurons then manufacture a variety of proteins, transmitters, modulators and hormones, creating an array of neurochemical reactions, making the brain a powerhouse that works day and night, while one is awake or asleep. Hence it demands a huge share of the blood supply to meet its ravenous energy demands. Yet, it’s highly selective and depends only on glucose and there is a blood-brain barrier that permits only substances that are essential to it to get through.
With time, several changes occur in the body as well as the brain, physical as well as mental. Ageing is an inevitable phenomenon that is common to all, but getting wiser is optional. There is a complete reversal of all the developmental steps of childhood. As the brain shrinks in size, blood vessels undergo changes that deplete its overall blood supply. Neurons shrink and disintegrate, neural connections start vanishing. Since it also takes care of metabolic, immunological and endocrinological functions of the body, as one is ageing, several natural changes occur such as a general slowing down of activity and reflexes, altered sleep cycles, change in mentation and others. The pace at which these changes take place determines the rapidity of ageing and if it is too fast, it becomes pathological, leading to disability. These changes are governed by genetic, environmental and social influences, will and personal aptitude to a great extent. With an improved life expectancy, it is essential to keep the brain active and alert to maintain an independent, high quality life. Ageing is inevitable, but its ill effects can be contained to a large extent.
It starts with physical fitness, a balanced diet, exercise, proper sleep and habits that promote brainmind health. From ancient scriptures to modern times, emphasis was given to diet and mental status. Diet takes care of physical health which is a primary requisite for everything. Mental health is of utmost importance in creating wellbeing. So yoga, meditation and pranayama certainly help. It has been proven that they can modulate the nervous system in order to improve longevity and the efficiency of brain functions as well as conservation of energy. Pranayama is known to reduce vascular resistance and improve blood supply to the brain. One has to maintain the activity of neurons by constantly engaging them in productive work and integrity of blood vessels by a suitable way of life. Moreover, all toxins and deleterious substances should be avoided.
Mental health has been given lot of importance in ageing both for heath, wellbeing and disease. In fact, many diseases including cancer are considered to be the result of a disturbed mental status. Mind is the source of positive energy. The so-called stress is the effect of modernization and a mechanicallife. Mindful living is important to convert stress into zest. One must have some stress to perform and achieve one’s goals, and one must enjoy everything they are doing irrespective of its purpose and profit. It should be "stress upon" rather than getting "stressed about". Everybody has gone through a happy childhood and every adult or elderly person still a child within.
It is essential to nurture "childlike” attitude to be active, happy and playful. Live like a child, as if every day is a new day.
The fear of ageing is more dangerous than its reality. Your position, family, children profession and possessions will continue to plague the mind. An unhealthy mind leads to an unhealthy body that not only ages rapidly but also becomes susceptible to many illnesses. Family, society and culture do play a role in the quality of life. The elders of western countries are far more independent than their counterparts here. Economic and Social support systems do build an inherent confidence.
One need not worry about becoming old, or lose confidence. Work must continue as long as the body permits. Involving oneself in the right kind of activities will help. One must continue to learn and never lose curiosity. At the same time, exercise all caution to avoid problems. Do away with all the events that bring you down. Keep the mind positive and happy as much as possible.
In the past, it was believed that brain cells can never be regenerated. It can only lose cells. Today, it is no longer true. Regenerative medicine and stem cell research is thriving. There is every reason to hope that soon in the future, scientific breakthroughs will make the deaf hear, dumbspeak and paralysed walk. In the meantime, maintaining the integrity of health becomes an individual as well as a collective responsibility. The elderly should be engaged appropriately. Avenues must be created to keep them occupied in a useful way. Opportunities should be created to utilize their lifetime experiences. One need not focus on their disabilities; rather, their experience can be a great learning for the youth.
Everyone is prone to illness. Elders are no exception. Compulsory health checks, early detection, diagnosis and proper and complete treatment in the case of an ailment can bring them back into full action. One must be sensitive and pay attention to the delicate nature of their systems and treat them accordingly. The brain has so much capacity that no one can use it to its fullest capacity in their lifetime. A 100 billion neurons, with the ability to create 300 trillion synapses, is the greatest treasure that mankind possesses. All that one need to do is "just use it" and not lose it.