Health Care

Give your hippocampus a bubble bath

Exercise, sudden cold stimulate brain longevity

by Aaron Warner

Working with many older clients I often hear them complain about memory loss, poor ability to focus and other brain related concerns with aging.  Concerns such as dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s make the conversations on occasion.  To lighten the mood I’ll tell the following joke: 

A woman walks into her doctor’s office and her doctor says to her “I have some good news and some bad news Mrs. Johnson.” 

She asks “Well, what is it?” 

Her doctor says “You have cancer AND you have Alzheimers.” 

She responds “Well at least I don’t have Alzheimers.” 

One of my clients, Mrs. Lydia Johnson, has mentioned some loss of memory and focus however she is over 70 and has suffered from a neurological disorder called Ataxia. The National Ataxia Foundation describes ataxia as follows:

Ataxia is a degenerative disease of the nervous system. Many symptoms of Ataxia mimic those of being drunk, such as slurred speech, stumbling, falling, and incoordination. These symptoms are caused by damage to the cerebellum, the part of the brain that is responsible for coordinating movement. Ataxia treatment involves a combination of medication to treat symptoms and  therapy to improve quality of life.

Dr. Andrew Huberman is a neurobologist and opthamalogical research scientist at Stanford University.  His new podcast Huberman Lab is one of the fastest growing and most popular in the health and human performance category.  Among his areas of concern he covers supplements, weight training and muscle building, eye health and again, leadership skills, meditation, nicotine, alcohol, cannabis and the current best supported research for what these things either do for are against our bodies.  Podcasts vary between long-form monologue and long-form interview styles typically heavy up front with advertisements, followed by an overview of the topic after which he and/or his guests dive into the relevant studies, history and current best practices. 

Dr. Wendy Suzuki, Ph.D. is a Professor of Neural Science and Psychology at New York University.  Her research focuses on memory, attention, brain plasticity and simple daily habits that can be leveraged to improve learning, focus, memory and cognitive ability. Among the modalities discussed which positively affect brain health and function are cardiovascular exercise, weight training, deliberate cold exposure, meditation, verbal affirmations (Neuro-Linguistic Programming), sleep and other behavioral practices for enhancing learning, mood and stress management and increasing attention span. 

Her interest in these practices was piqued when her father, a lifelong reader and engineer who helped start the Silicon BValley boom, began to suffer symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer’s. Dr. Suzuki noticed in her parents what she was learning about herself and in her laboratory studies – her father, despite actively bathing his brain with information, was losing cognitive function while her mother, the life-long exercise enthusiast, was seeing no decline though being roughly the same age. 

Her research went on to find this is true of people all over the world, including Scandinavia where a longitudinal study of women classified from low fitness to high fitness were visited forty years later and found the high fitness women maintained better brain health and cognition.  

Getting into the particulars Dr. Suzuki explains the role of the hippocampus in our brain’s control of memory and recall capability.  It seems exercise, in her words, gives the hippocampus a “bubble bath” which results in noticeable improved function and even offers improved beautification of the gland itself when looked at later in life.  

This same bubble bath occurs after deliberate exposure to cold. Which is why she recommends her morning routine of ending a hot shower with an intense splash of cold water (ranging anywhere from 10 seconds to 1 minute).  Dr. Huberman confirms this leads to a lengthened release of dopamine, the same “good vibes” hormone released after exercise (and illicit drug use such as heroin). 

Both doctors offer anecdotal evidence they’ve obtained by simply being among the neuro-science community.  It seems some neuro-scientists practice what they find while others take pride in doing the exact opposite.  Doctors Huberman and Suzuki concur the ones who have made regular exercise a part of their daily routine both outlive and out perform their peers in the field.  

As a twenty year fitness professional who has read widely in this area and followed the best practices I’ve seen the same both in my own regimen as well as among my clients.  I’ve had the good fortune to work with and help a variety of elite athletes ranging from world and Olympic champions as well as every day New Englanders who simply want to maintain their quality of life.  In addition I’ve been blessed to work among those with neurological conditions like Ataxia, stroke, Parkinson’s among others.  Not only is there no doubt exercise will help to stave off neurological disorders that come with age and gradual degeneration, it will also step in and mollify the negative effects if you are suddenly struck with Ataxia, such as happened to Lydia. 

There are many different types of Ataxia and many different causes.  In Lydia’s case she believes it was brought on by chemical exposure.  She first noticed symptoms in her thirties as a mother of three.  As her Ataxia advanced so did her inability to function safely on a day to day basis.  

Our meeting began with me hearing her fall and hit her head on an abutment outside of the Coolidge Hotel in White River Junction.  After dusting her off and taking her inside for an ice cream she told me about her condition.  I told her what I do and she decided to begin training with me.  Here we are twelve years later and her function Ataxia score not only hasn’t lowered in that time but actually went up briefly before leveling off.  

Despite being the weakest and most feeble client I’d taken on Lydia, through patience and carefully crafted scientific progressions to her fitness program, went from basic machine exercises to where she could do a full barbell back-squat with 75 lbs on her back, which she can do to this day as a 75 year old.  

This is just one of many personal stories I have, however the real focus of this article is to point you to the Huberman Labs podcast and to remind you the massive benefits of guided and properly designed exercise. 

If you can’t or don’t want to join a gym or hire a strength coach,  Dr. Suzuki mentioned the “bare minimum” for obtaining benefits is a ten minute walk – inside or outside – however Dr. Huberman suggests doing them outside for the benefits to the eye.  For his podcast on eye health click this link.  

Whatever you take from this just know that diet and exercise are a virtual panacea for most of what ails us and Vermont, last I checked, was the healthiest state in the U.S.  We here at the Chronicle are committed to helping you keep it that way in 2023. 

Here are few others from the Huberman Lab playlist we suggest: 

Master Your Sleep and Be More Alert

Diet and Mental Health

Cannabis Health and Harms

What Alcohol Does To Your Body, Brain & Health 

The author is a fitness expert living in Hartford.

Categories: Health Care