Q: We've all been told that when people lose one of their five senses — say, eyesight — the brain compensates by sharpening the other senses. Is there any science to that, or is it just wishful thinking? — Dorothy S., Hartville, Ohio
A: Yes, the brain can compensate for the loss of one type of sensory input. And you've asked about it just as new brain-imaging techniques are showing us precisely how that works.
Using what's called "MRI multimodal brain imaging," scientists at Massachusetts Eye and Ear compared specific brain regions of 12 people with early blindness (they were completely blind before age 3) and 16 people with normal sight. They found that the blind test subjects had enhanced connections between areas of their brains that the sighted test group didn't have. This allowed brain functioning of people without sight to, as they put it, "enrich their interaction with the environment." In other words, the brain attempted to level the playing field between the sighted and the non-sighted.
It's great news, because it means that your brain can be stretched, prodded, encouraged and expanded to enrich sensory experiences.
So, how can you help your brain flex its mental muscle? Start with healthy brain foods, such as walnuts, salmon and whole grains; and adopt these easy-to-follow rules:
• Avoid the inflammation-causing, artery-clogging Five Food Felons: added sugars and sugar syrups; all saturated and trans fats; and any grains that aren't 100 percent whole.
• Eat by color to supply your brain with the nutrients it needs: blue from blueberries; deep green from kale; pink from salmon; brown from walnuts. Plus, 900 mg of omega-3 DHA daily keeps your brain well-tuned and better able to resist dementia.
• And exercise your brain, like you do your muscles (daily for at least 30 minutes — headed for 10,000 steps a day). Learn a new language and/or play games, from bridge to ping-pong to squash with friends. And try great "speed of processing" brain games, like BrainHQ's Double Decision.
Q: Last week my doctor said, "You have obesity, and we need to treat it as a disease, just like we would treat rheumatoid arthritis or chronic migraines." Does that make sense to you? — Lorin G., Albany, N.Y.
A: Your doc is right. Obesity is a disease, and like other diseases it can raise your risk for serious health threats. When you have rheumatoid arthritis, for example, it's an immune response that ups inflammation, leading to joint pain and erosion, increased cardiovascular problems and a risk of falling. That's why the best medical approach to RA addresses not just joint problems but other significant health issues as well.
Ditto for obesity. It's a chronic disease, characterized by inflammation, joint problems, elevated glucose and blood lipids, hypertension, depression, heart problems, cognition issues and more. Treating obesity as a disease means you can't just say, "Your body mass index is too high, so lose weight." Instead, treatment needs to look at the complex network of health challenges that obesity presents and address each of them.
A new study in the journal Obesity proposes that the criteria for diagnosing obesity include a person's BMI, "alongside an indication of the degree to which excess adiposity negatively affects an individual patient's health." Our hope is that this shift will help people with obesity focus on the profound health issues the disease presents, such as amputation following a diabetes diagnosis. Instead of saying, "I guess I'll start a diet tomorrow," they'll think, "I have to do something about this now!"
Lorin, we bet you wouldn't ignore the treatment options if your doc said you had cancer. And we're hoping that now you won't ignore those options for obesity (or what the researchers want to call "adiposity-based chronic disease"), either. They include nutritional counseling, bariatric surgery, physical exercise to boost metabolism and to spare joints, and stress reduction to bring down inflammatory cortisol levels.
Dr. Mehmet Oz is host of “The Dr. Oz Show,” and Dr. Mike Roizen is Chief Wellness Officer and Chair of Wellness Institute at Cleveland Clinic. Email your health and wellness questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.