Recently, I read an article about a well-known retired NFL football coach. I was saddened to read he had been moved to a hospice facility due to a diagnosis of advanced Alzheimer’s disease. A few weeks later, he died peacefully with his family at his side.
Additional information revealed he received the Alzheimer’s diagnosis in 2014, six or seven years prior to the announcement of his death. As I digested this information, I began to wonder about his condition.
Was he just a coach or did he play prior to coaching? If he had been a player, did he suffer head injuries and might this have contributed to his condition?
Football and Brain Health
It turns out he had played college football at the University of Pittsburgh and was drafted into the American Football League (AFL) by the Buffalo Bills. He was a linebacker in the AFL/NFL from 1965 to 1971, but he was best known for his football coaching. His career spanned 21 seasons.
I personally treated at least one former NFL linebacker who had Alzheimer’s disease. And, after reading about this coach, I had more thoughts and questions.
Did he have Alzheimer’s disease only or was there some combination of Alzheimer’s and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)? CTE is a major focal point of neurologic research with particular attention to football players, especially for those who have had head injuries or concussions.
A Healthy Lifestyle Influences Disease Prevention
As I focus on disease prevention and improving potential healthspan, this has been of particular interest to me. The NFL now pays close attention to head injuries and concussions, but it is much too little and far too late in my view. Also, I have seen the lifestyle of many college and professional football coaches tends to be horrendous. Despite working with world-class athletes, many coaches seem to disregard many, if not all, of the ingredients that could result in their optimal health and physical and mental performance.
Many professional football coaches suffer from obesity at the least. During football season, coaches may deprive themselves of sleep to prepare the perfect game plan. With no time for relaxation, appropriate physical activity, or family intimacy, these coaches are time bombs.
Supporting Good Brain Health
Without proper care, the brain suffers from this lifestyle just like the rest of the body. Even if you are not a football player or coach, protecting your brain is incredibly important. Football players now wear sophisticated helmets, but what are the rest of us doing to protect our brains from the environment in which we live?
As I read about the retired football player/coach I wondered could have played the greatest role in the deterioration of his nervous system. Was it neglect of the five lifestyle ingredients that may have protected his brain from dementia? Or was it the (undetected and unreported) head injuries—large and small—suffered in his days as a player? Unfortunately, it is impossible to separate the two risk factors, and it is often a combination of both.
How Can We Preserve Brain Health?
Fortunately, there are things we can all do to protect our brains. By addressing and improving our lifestyles, we improve our chances at preserving brain health.
- Protect your head. Wear a helmet especially during activities such as bicycle riding, snow skiing, and other contact sports.
- Reduce falls. Work on exercises and activities to improve balance and strengthen your legs. Avoid dangerous activities that put you at higher risk for falls, such as climbing on ladders and roofs.
- Sweat a lot. Exercise, exercise, exercise! Include strength training for both your upper and lower body. Anything that will help you maintain balance and strength may prevent falls and potential head injuries.
- Sleep well. A well-rested brain will function better and cuts down on fatigue. Research has linked sleep apnea and inadequate sleep with a higher risk for dementia. Our brains use sleep to process and eliminate waste products that build up during waking hours. In addition, a rested brain learns and processes information more effectively.
- Reduce stress. Stress can lead to more distraction and can affect our ability to process information. Taking time to defuse or meditate can reduce stress hormones which affects brain function.
- Build socialization. During intimacy and socialization our bodies release different hormones and neurotransmitters that help us feel better and less depressed.
- Reduce sweets. Proper nutrition is an essential component in brain function. Brains respond best to certain types of diet. Carbohydrates, and sugar in particular, have a negative impact on brain function. In patients with dementia, sugar makes a significantly negative impact but a higher fat diet may be helpful.
Here is a short list of foods that contain lots of antioxidants. Antioxidants are anti-inflammatory properties which improve brain function.
- Fatty fish
- Pumpkin seeds
- Dark chocolate
- Green tea
The quality of our lives depends on how well we take on the responsibility of caring for our brains every day.
To a long and healthy life,
David Bernstein, MD
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