Forum Advocates Physical Fitness for Your Brain’s Sake

By Justin HAGER

USC Verdugo Hills Hospital held its sixth annual Brain Health Forum this week. Featuring a variety of experts from both the physical and cognitive sciences, the forum focused on how an aging population can protect itself from cognitive decline.

The subject is increasingly important in the United States where the percentage of Americans aged 65 and older has nearly quadrupled since 1900, with the real number increasing by more than 17 times, according to the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services Administration for Community Living. The department estimates that there are more than 54 million people over the age of 65 currently living in the United States.

During the forum, Dr. Seyed Parham Khalili, a clinical assistant professor of family medicine and geriatrics at USC Keck School of Medicine, explained that while the mortality rate among seniors has declined for many of the most common age-related causes of death, such as heart disease, cerebrovascular disease and unintentional injury, morbidity and mortality due to cognitive diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and dementia have increased during the past 40 years. If current trends hold, more than 100 million people will be living with dementia around the world by 2050, making brain health a critical issue related to global mortality.

Dr. Khalili’s presentation at the forum discussed comorbidity, the ways that different diseases can interact to create new and often unpredictable symptoms, including cognitive decline. Studying these comorbidities has led to a greater understanding that the traditional separation of physical health from mental health is both incorrect and dangerous. He cited a 2020 article in the Lancet, which was also cited repeatedly by every presenter at the USC Keck forum, which found that maintaining good physical health and keeping diseases like diabetes, hypertension and obesity under control had a significant impact on reducing neuropathological damage that leads to dementia and other cognitive disorders. Reductions in smoking, alcohol intake and air pollution multiplied the positive impacts, while increases in physical exercise, opportunities for learning and frequent social contact also had positive effects on Alzheimer’s, dementia and other cognitive decline.

Another presenter at the forum, Dr. Raj Dasgupta, an assistant professor of clinical medicine at Keck School of Medicine, presented similar findings but as they relate to sleep.

“Sleep is the single most important behavior that humans and other animals experience,” he said. He presented data from the National Sleep Foundation that showed that adults over the age of 65 who slept between six and nine hours have better cognition, lower rates of mental and physical illness and improved quality of life.

Dr. Lon Schneider, chair of psychiatry and neuroscience at Keck School of Medicine, presented on Emerging Treatments for Alzheimer’s and Memory Loss, including some exciting developments that have come as a result of redefining Alzheimer’s as a biological illness, not just a cognitive one, as well as the development of understanding the role of certain proteins and biomarkers.

Overall, the message of the forum seemed to emphasize the idea that many of the most important risk factors for brain health are within a person’s control and can be minimized by making healthy choices surrounding diet, exercise, lifestyle and sleep.

But if someone or their loved one develops Alzheimer’s, dementia or another cognitive disease, new treatments are being developed right now. Speaking with their health care provider about any signs is imperative.