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Raymond Lam

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Brain diseases affect us all. Who doesn't have family or personal experience with a neurological condition like Alzheimer's dementia or Parkinson's disease, or a psychiatric disorder like depression or schizophrenia? Can you do anything to stay brain healthy?

The statistics on brain diseases are frightening … more than 700,000 Canadians suffer from degenerative neurological conditions. Within a generation, the number of people with dementia in Canada will double to over one million.

Mental disorders and addictions are also disorders of the brain. Depression is now the second leading medical cause of disability worldwide. More than one-third of one-million Canadians suffer from depression each year, resulting in greater burden (measured by early death and disability) than breast, colon, lung and prostate cancer combined.

Clearly, there is no health without brain health. Although our brain controls all aspects of our daily lives, it still remains a mystery. We do not understand much of how the brain functions normally, never mind in brain diseases and disorders. That is why brain research is so important.

The Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health, where I work, holds clinics for people with Alzheimer's, mood disorders, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, and other brain disorders. Run jointly by the University of British Columbia and Vancouver Coastal Health, the hope is that all the clinics will share both clinical and research facilities to truly integrate laboratory and clinical neuroscience with a common goal to bring the latest in brain science to the people suffering from these conditions.

Because it's still such a mystery to most people, I asked my colleagues there – renowned neurologists, neuroscientists, physicists, psychiatrists, psychologists, and rehabilitation specialists – for their best tips to maintain, preserve and enhance brain health.

The first tip was "choose your parents wisely." Okay, not quite practical advice, unless you have a time machine, but family history and genes play a role in most brain disorders. Genetic contributions are complicated, though, and most only result in an increased vulnerability or risk for a brain disorder. Huntington's disease is one of a few notable exceptions, where a genetic test is available.

More good news is that we know, for the most part, we are not slaves to our DNA. Much research, especially in the field of epigenetics, has shown that our environment can alter the functions of genes. Researchers are more optimistic that we can overcome or modify genetic vulnerability to brain disorders. We also now know that neurogenesis, or the growth of new brain cells, occurs throughout our lives.

Many simple activities can help promote neurogenesis and improve brain health. So, here are the real brain tips:

1. Exercise your body. Many studies show that cardiov exercise increases neurogenesis and improves memory and mood. Brain scans done after weight training also found increased activity in the brain areas involved with memory. But check with your doctor or physiotherapist first before beginning vigorous exercise.

2. Exercise your brain. In the tradition of "use it or lose it," regular brain activity helps to maintain brain health. Read, take a class, do a sodoku. There are fancy new computer games that claim to increase your brain power, but research will show whether they are better than simply doing your crossword.

3. Sleep well. There is a lot of scientific evidence that a good night's sleep for seven to nine hours improves health, memory and mood. Keeping to regular sleep and wake times, having a consistent bedtime routine, and avoiding light before bed time can all help to ensure a restful, healthful sleep.

4. Talk to a friend. Fulfilling social relationships can protect against dementia and depression, so cultivate your friends and family.

5. Eat "Mediterranean style." A Mediterranean diet rich in antioxidants not only helps your heart, it can also be good for your brain. Your diet should be high in legumes (beans, peas, lentils, soybeans, etc), vegetables, fruits and unrefined cereals, moderate in fish and dairy products, and low in meat. Oh, and moderate use of olive oil and red wine helps make this adjustment easier.

6. Challenge yourself. This tip comes from the rehabilitation specialist. Whether mentally or physically, work to a goal slightly beyond your current capability. Reaching for the stars may not be realistic, but challenging your goals can activate your brain and body.

And finally,

7. Appreciate beauty. After all, why live longer with a healthy brain if all you do is think?

Dr. Raymond Lam is a professor of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia and medical director of the Mood Disorders Clinic at the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health in Vancouver. He has written nine books on depression, including A Clinician's Guide to Using Light Therapy by Cambridge University Press. Follow him on Twitter @DrRaymondLam.

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