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Healthy habits for healthy brains

Gary Cooke
Special to The Union
Kathleen O’Dea, medical speech therapist, teaches a three-part series on how brains age and how to care for them.
Submitted Photo |

We have a chance to keep our brains healthy by using them to make good lifestyle choices.

That is the message from Kathleen O’Dea, a medical speech therapist at Dignity Health Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital who is teaching a three-part series called “Mind Matters” about how brains age and how to care for them.

Brains naturally change over time. However, we may delay the decline by making strategic changes in our lifestyles — diet, stress, sleep and other factors all play a role.

“My job is to educate, to help people understand how the brain works and realize that they can impact brain health through the choices they make,” O’Dea said. “When people see how the pieces of the puzzle fit together, they’re more apt to make healthier choices.”

The “Mind Matters” series highlights the continuum from normal aging through dementia. The series began with a class that described normal brain aging, and factors that lead to premature or abnormal changes.

She’ll be teaching part two, “Changes: Our Brain and Dementia” tomorrow, exploring how the brain is affected by mild cognitive loss and dementia. (Note: This class is already filled due to pre-registration.) The third class, “Lifestyle: Your Tool to Prevent Mental Decline,” will be 6 to 8 p.m. on Sept. 23. It will focus on how lifestyle impacts the brain, and the changes you may make to reduce brain stress and prevent premature brain aging.

O’Dea first fell in love with the brain when she took a course in neurology while pursuing a master’s degree in speech pathology. Now, as a medical speech therapist, she works every day with stroke patients and others whose damaged brains have led to speech and cognitive impairments.

As we age, O’Dea explained, we all experience memory loss, struggling to recall someone’s name or a word we want to use. That’s normal, she said. However abnormal brain disorders do exist. The first stage of this progression, known as mild cognitive impairment (MCI), may include frequent forgetfulness, missing appointments or social events, and forgetting in mid-sentence what you were saying.

People in this stage may also experience feeling overwhelmed by decisions or instructions, as well depression, aggression, anxiety or apathy.

MCI can be genetic, but is often caused by lifestyle and environmental factors. Some causes include nutritional deficiencies, thyroid imbalance, and even insomnia. While MCI does not necessarily lead to dementia, it is a risk factor for developing the disease.

The final stage is dementia, an umbrella term which includes Alzheimer’s disease and has many causes. Symptoms include memory loss, difficulty communicating/finding words, disorientation, difficulty with motor coordination, increased risk of falling, trouble with complex reasoning and problem solving. There may be personality changes as well such as paranoia, agitation, or inappropriate behaviors.

A neurological exam is needed to make a diagnosis of MCI and dementia, O’Dea said.

Although Alzheimer’s disease is a permanent stage of dementia, O’Dea said normal aging and even MCI may be stabilized or delayed by making strategic lifestyle changes.

These include regular physical exercise, consuming more omega-3 fatty acids, intellectual stimulation (reading, computer use, games, conversation), social activities, meditation and memory training.

“I’ve found people in our community to be very educated, and eager to learn about comprehensive health,” O’Dea said. “The Mind Matters series gives them an opportunity to learn more. The more they know about brain health, the more they can maximize their own health. We all want to live longer and with a better quality of life.”

June has been declared National Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month. For more information about Mild Cognitive Impairment, O’Dea suggests online resources through the Mayo Clinic and the Alzheimer’s Society.

She advises that individuals experiencing memory problems or other dementia symptoms make an appointment to speak with their doctors. Some medical conditions can cause dementia symptoms, and a physician can help determine the underlying cause.

To attend the September “Mind Matters” class, call 530-274-6124. Pre-registration is required.

All physicians providing care for patients at SNMH are members of the medical staff and are independent practitioners, not employees of the hospital.

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