Dr. Gary Small, M.D., is a professor of psychiatry and aging and director of the UCLA Longevity Center at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. Dr. Small, one the nations top brain health experts, frequently appears on The Today Show, Good Morning America, and The Dr. Oz Show. He is co-author with his wife Gigi Vorgan of many popular books, including The New York Times best-seller, The Memory Bible, and The Alzheimer’s Prevention Program. He is author of The Mind Health Report newsletter.

Dr. Gary Small, M.D.

Tips to Protect Your Brain From Trauma

Tuesday, 21 Jan 2014 11:14 AM

By Gary Small, M.D.

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In the course of a lifetime, it’s impossible to protect our heads completely from trauma. At some point, nearly everyone has bumped into a cabinet or played a contact sport or suffered a fall. 

These minor traumas usually don’t knock us out, and our skulls generally protect our brains from damage. But problems can occur when the traumas are repetitive and severe. Here are a few strategies to keep in mind to protect your head from potential damage due to trauma. 

Talk to Your Doctor. Many brain injuries go unreported because people don’t take seriously the subtle symptoms they experience. I recommend erring on the side of caution — when in doubt, talk with your doctor and describe your symptoms rather than discounting them as a temporary inconvenience. That way, a professional can decide what kind of evaluation and treatment plan makes good medical sense. 

Wear a Helmet. A recent Canadian study measured the impact of helmet legislation on bicycle-related head injuries in 9,650 children ages 5 to 19. They found that bicycle-related head injury rates declined significantly in provinces where legislation had been adopted, compared with provinces and territories that did not adopt legislation. Whether you like to ride bikes, skateboards, or scooters, wearing a helmet makes a difference. 

Rest Your Head. If you sprain your ankle while playing tennis and stay off the tennis court for a while, your ankle will heal faster. However, if you decide to get right back on the court, the chance of developing a chronic, debilitating injury increases greatly. The same principle holds for head injuries. Rest is critical. Consult with your doctor about which activities you need to restrict — whether recreational or work-related — and how long you need to hold off. 

Avoid Dangerous Activities. Many people are thrill-seekers who love bungee jumping, hang gliding, and parasailing. Although these and other dangerous sports feed our dopamine circuits, they also pose a risk for head injury. Even wrestling can cause a jostling of the brain within the skull. Especially if you’ve experienced a head injury in the past, consider skipping activities that might put your brain at further risk.  

Feed Your Brain. A healthy diet that protects neurons from age-related decline also makes sense for anyone who’s suffered brain injury. Omega-3 fats from fish, nuts, and flaxseed have anti-inflammatory properties that promote brain health. Fresh fruits and vegetables protect our brains from the wear and tear of oxidative stress. Avoiding refined sugars and processed foods lowers the risk for diabetes, which can lead to dementia, strokes, and other forms of brain impairment. 

Get Regular Exercise. Try to keep up a routine of aerobic conditioning. Only 20 minutes of daily brisk walking may be enough to pump oxygen and nutrients to feed your brain cells and keep them healthy. Strength training has also been shown to provide additional benefits beyond aerobic exercise. 

Reduce Stress. Chronic stress injures brain cells. Meditation, deep breathing, and other relaxation techniques can reduce stress and protect those brain cells. Recent studies have found that just 10 minutes of daily meditation can alter neural activity in brain regions controlling memory and mood. Physical exercise can also reduce stress. In addition, spending time with friends and remaining social will protect mind health, whether or not you have experienced a traumatic brain injury.

Get Medical Treatment if Needed. If head trauma has caused depression, memory loss, or any other symptom, your doctor may be able to provide treatments for the symptoms. Antidepressants and psychotherapy can be effective for mood disorders, and many forms of cognitive decline will respond to symptomatic medicines.

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