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Dr Vaja Zatjirua on Brain Health at the End of the Year

Being the end of the year, priorities tend to be centered around things like getting our last to-do list of the year wrapped up; socialising the last year-end steam off or on the looming holidays. All of this leaves little time or attention for brain health. Yet, with the year that was, consideration for the health of our brains, can mean the difference in the year to come. Our brains are one of the body’s most important organs and play a critical role in our learning ability, our working ability, aptitude, memory, personality and more.

99FM’s MYD Heart spoke to Namibian Neurologist, Dr Vaja Zatjirua from the Namibia Brain Institute to find out what we can do to keep our brains in top condition through the last push of the year.

What advice would you have for people to get to the end of the year in a way that is healthy and supportive of brain health?

“Firstly, avoid the toxins. If you can, I know it’s a hard thing to do at this time of the year but avoid things like alcohol and smoking because they increase your stress and decrease your brains capacity to recover optimally. Then secondly, get enough sleep because sleep deprivation is not good for the brain.”

How do you know what is enough sleep for you?

“This varies from person to person, but about eight hours is good. Anything less than six or more than ten is not healthy.”

“Another great tool for the brain, even though people sometimes scoff at this, is meditation. Even just every now and then, meditation is very good for the brain. I tell my patients, who do not deal with stress well, to meditate or to at least try, for ten minutes a day, to sit and do nothing. It is harder than you think to just sit down and do nothing, just relax, clear your mind. I find it very useful, in terms of just centering yourself and it has other beneficial effects, such as lowering your blood pressure, lowering your heart rate etc. The things that affect the brain are secondary to what is happening to in your body. So if you are quite stressed, your heart rate goes up and that negatively affects your blood circulation to your brain and there are other consequences in fact such as strokes etc.”

“Another tip for keeping your brain healthy that I can share, is exercise. For example, I use exercise for patients with dementia as a part of the prescription to try and help with improving your brain connectivity. It’s useful for chronic pain management as well. Even for things like depression it has been shown that independent of all other medications or interventions you do, exercise in itself is beneficial. So get some exercise in.”

Do you think it is important for people take a break at the end of the year?

“Yes, it is important. Even in the corporate world there is mandatory leave time and this is because there is good scientific evidence to suggest that it is needed. That it’s not just because you don’t want to work but you need to take some time off. So if you can, then really take the time off. A benefit of taking leave is that you expose your mind to different experiences, this can be relaxing or even giving back and reaching out to others.”

Is there anything we can do to prepare our brain for a fresh and healthy start in January?

Just avoid the toxins, get enough sleep, meditate, relax and exercise. That in itself is all you really need. From a dietary stand point, eat normal food, a balanced diet, please get enough fruits and vegetables, and avoid the carbohydrates as much as you can. Then also, avoid the fad things like strange diets or funny cleanses. There is no real evidence that these things help at the end of the day. Just eat normally and remember to exercise, which is something we tend to neglect at this time of year.”

The Internet is full of tablets and supplements that one can take to increase brain power, are any of them helpful?

“No. There have been many different preparations that have come out from the fish oil saga that was published in the UK in the last decade and now nobody takes fish oils anymore. No tablet can increased your IQ, none of it works, it hasn’t been shown to work and so it’s all just a waste of money.”

So it’s not a supplement, it is a normal balanced lifestyle that is going to give you a better brainpower?


And lastly, does the brain ever stop learning?

“When you are young, you learn quicker because your brain is more plastic so it forms connections easier, that process doesn’t stop occurring when you get older. While it starts getting protein accumulations and the neurons don’t function as well because the process of plasticity is less and so your learning ability becomes less as you get old. That is because physically your brain doesn’t produce as many neurons. But this can be helped with exercise and with the use of your brain. The more you use it the better it works, the more efficient it is.”

“So I read because it is one of the best things you can do in terms of stimulating the brain. Not just reading about what you do but reading about everything. Read as much as you can. Highly functioning, highly educated people hardly ever get Alzheimer’s disease simply because they keep using their brain all the time, they are very active and that keeps the connections going. Just stay away from the television and open a book.”