Digital dementia: If you're reading this, then you're at risk

Thursday, May 26, 2016 Stef dela Cruz, MD 0 Comments

Can you stand not watching TV or using your phone the entire day? No? Yeah, I thought so. Unfortunately, this addiction to everything digital that we all seem to be afflicted with might be making us dumber.

Dr Gary Small[2]Dr. Gary Small, who received a letter from the president in this photo, came to the Philippines to spread the word about brain aging and digital dementia.

They say we all have to use our gadgets less than we do – it’s allegedly good for our health. Although that’s good advice if you want to preserve your brain function, do we really have to be tech-averse just to stay sharp?


8 Brain tips to fight digital dementia

If you can’t stay away from gadgets (I know I can’t), here are a few suggestions based on Dr. Small’s pointers on how to prevent brain aging.

Brain tip no. 1:

Acknowledge your role in preventing brain aging

Some people think, “Hey, I’m getting old – being forgetful is natural.”

Well, ain’t that defeatist?

Dr.-Gary-Small2“Two-thirds of risk factors for brain aging are non-genetic and a lot of it is under our control,” says Dr. Gary Small, director of UCLA Longevity Center. “We have to get the message out there that 50 percent of dementia worldwide is attributable to these factors.”

So, basically, fighting brain aging starts in your mind.


Brain tip no. 2:

Don’t rely on your phone to remember everything

My phone is like my best memory ally. What I can’t remember, I tend to save on my phone.

I bet you do the same. If you’re as “wired” as I am, I bet you use your phone as your organizer/ notepad/ calendar/ phonebook/ personal assistant!

Well, don’t.

Instead of relying 100 percent on your phone, commit to memory some of the things you feel are important. Make an effort to remember names and faces, even as you use your phone to save their numbers and email addresses.

Brain tip no. 3:

Reduce stress

No surprise there. Stress contributes to many diseases known to man. Should we really be taken aback by how stress also affects our brain’s “age”?

“Chronic stress leads to depression and anxiety which, in turn, cause cognitive impairment. Meditation and stress management improve mood and memory. It even changes telomerase activity which affects longevity,” says Dr. Small.

Finding ways to destress may help your brain (and your body!) stay young. That’s why stress management is part of the two-week program advocated by Dr. Small.

The program lists down day-to-day goals and activities that help boost brain activity. “There is significant improvement [among program participants]. Brain scans show that the mind becomes more efficient.”

Brain tip no. 4:

Stop making bad health decisions

Smoking, being overweight, being sleep-deprived, and drinking too much can affect our cognition? Really? Well, you don’t say!

Obesity is associated with a four-fold increase in dementia. “Even people who had weight loss surgery showed significant improvement in brain function,” says Dr. Small.

Engage in healthy (and fun) activities. Follow a healthy diet – it leads to slower cognitive decline. Eat more fruits and vegetables. Eat food rich in omega-3 fatty acids.

You know the drill.

Brain tip no. 5:

Stay social (in real life)

It’s nice that we’ve got Facebook, but staying connected in real life protects your brain more than a mere Facebook friendship.

“Social connections are very important in combating brain aging,” says Dr. Small.

But then again, do we truly lack real-life social connections? Dr. Roy Cuison, vice president of the Philippine College of Geriatric Medicine (and my former professor in UST Medicine) made a curious observation: Social engagement is too much, not too little, in the extended families in the Philippines.


Brain tip no. 6:

For the sake of your brain, keep an open mind

Based on different observational studies, we can assume that we know the secret to having an elephant’s memory. But do we really?

Dr. Cuison reminds us that whatever we feel we know about geriatric medicine and brain aging is probably premature.

He tells a story about two Filipino centenarians. The first one he mentions, Pedro Samuya, is a 107-year-old who died in 2016. He lived a really healthy lifestyle, eating a lot of greens while staying away from stress and pollution.

The second one, Caplis Fabros, is an 111-year-old who passed away in 2012. What he did in life should not be emulated – he smoked for most of his life and drank too much. Still, he lived longer than the healthier centenarian!

Using the above story as a perfect example of how anecdotes can mislead us, he says we should interpret observational studies with prudence.

His message, in a nutshell: When it comes to battling aging, we don’t really know what we know.

Brain tip no. 7:

Keep the faith

Do you believe in god, any god? Chances are, you’re bound to live longer.

Dr. Cuison made note of something interesting about the two Filipino centenarians he mentioned: “The former had strong faith in God while the [latter] prayed everyday.”

Could it be that faith in a god – regardless of religion – just might be the secret to a centenarian’s life? It’s hard to tell. That’s the problem with observational studies, remember?

Dr. Small recalls a 1999 study about people who went to houses of worship living seven years longer than those who didn’t. “As a neuroscientist, I think that if you believe in God, you feel that [your problems are] up to someone else – and that lowers your stress level.”

It could be the freedom to live life with less stress that makes us live longer if we live our lives with faith. Or maybe it’s the meditative component of a prayer-filled life that contributes to longevity.

“Meditation may play a big part in trying to remedy cognitive decline in aging years,” Dr. Cuison adds. “Albert Einstein meditated. At the time of his death, he had the brain of a thirty year old.”


Brain tip no. 8:

Find ways to stay motivated

Joining health groups can be a good way to stay faithful to your goals to stay young and fit, says Dr. Small.

Herbalife-Nutrition-Advisory-Board2“This is the reason I advocate nutrition groups, such as the ones from Herbalife.” (Disclaimer: Dr. Small is a member of the Herbalife Nutrition Advisory Board. Read the last question in this post for more info about these nutrition groups.) “[Members of these groups] talk about health, do exercises, consume healthy products, and share attitudes on health.”

His overall message: If you hang out with healthy people, you are more likely to be healthy. Of course, when you’re healthy, you are bound to stay young.

If you’re so afraid of aging mentally and physically, stay motivated by hobnobbing with people more motivated than you. Well, you might also want to consider praying more than ever before. It can’t hurt.

Stef dela CruzAbout the blogger
Stef dela Cruz is a vegan doctor and writer. She received the 2013 Award for Health Media from the Department of Health. She is the editor of The Manila Bulletin's Animal Scene Magazine. Get in touch if you want to invite her as a speaker!