Cerebral Small Vessel Disease. Might You Have It?
Cerebral small vessel disease. You may know it by one of a handful of terms: white matter disease, small vessel ischemic disease, lacunar infarcts, white matter hyperintensities, or Leukoaraiosis. Cerebral small vessel disease (CSVD) encompasses a group of changes and developments (abnormalities) in the small blood vessels of the brain. Today I want to talk about the signs of cerebral small vessel disease and some promising life choices we can make to keep our brains healthy.
Recent reporting by Leslie Kernisan, MD, MPH,* and research done by Dr. Vincent Mok for the Journal of Stroke both note seeing white matter changes, (historically, and still today, called “white matter changes”) when viewing brain tissue on an MRI. Dr. Mok writes, “Lacunar infarcts (small strokes), white matter hyperintensities (these are seen during an MRI), and cerebral microbleeds [meaning bleeding in the brain from a very small blood vessel] are considered various manifestations of cerebral small vessel disease. These lesions are associated with a plethora of disabilities (e.g., stroke, cognitive impairment, depression, gait disturbances, urinary symptoms).”
What Causes Cerebral Small Vessel Disease?
What causes CSVD to develop? That source of all disease: chronically high inflammation. After existing in our bodies for years, and accelerating the development of sticky plaque in our blood vessels and heart, inflammation leads to deposits of plaque, like tiny time bombs, in our brains. The damage accumulates and the small vessels in our brains become blocked – just like in a major artery. These blocks deprive our brain of nourishing blood to keep it humming in perfect tune. Blockages may allow the small vessels to leak blood into our brain tissue, resulting in a brain hemorrhage. Other conditions can also produce white matter changes, but CSVD tops the list of probable causes.
What are the Key Symptoms of CSVD?
We classify CSVD into three levels:
- no noticeable symptoms;
- moderate symptoms; or
- severe symptoms.
Many older adults with CVSD have no noticeable symptoms. Those we notice in folks with moderate to severe CSVD include:
- Cognitive Impairment: When tested, those seniors with CVSD scored worse on the M-MSE, a standard exam given to test cognitive function. Vascular cognitive impairment is the term you might hear in relation to cognitive impairment and cerebral small vessel disease.
- Walking or Balance Issues. Research shows a direct link between increased problems with overall mobility – including standing still and keeping our balance, and a disturbance in our walking and carriage when white matter lesions exist in our brains. Those of us with moderate to severe CVSD experience a noticeable downshift in our walking and balancing abilities.
- Stroke Risk Increase. A study analyzing many studies found a 50% increase in the risk of having a stroke when white matter hyperintensities were present in the brain.
Cerebral Small Vessel Disease. Might You Have It?
As we age, we lose our ability to handle stress as well as we did when we were young, and left untreated, chronic stress speeds up cognitive decline, and all the various degenerative aspects of aging. Meditation, however, can counter-balance many of the devastating effects of stress on our bodies and protect our brains from the debilitating combination of aging and unchecked stress overload. Meditation lowers cortisol levels, and as early as 1978, findings show meditators were physiologically 12 years younger that their chronological age. Now that’s good news!
Mindful meditation practices are not the cure-all for every ailment or condition, but the great news is: improvements seen in medical patients using meditation and other mind-body interventions are virtually equal to the results seen using conventional approaches in treating pain, stress, and other illnesses. This includes the use of psychotherapy, psychoactive medications, and behavior modification education.
Today, across the country, and around the world, medical schools, medical practitioners, and everyday people are using a menu of many types of meditation. These various kinds of meditation draw on different techniques originating from a variety of spiritual and non-spiritually- based traditions including: Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and the Western belief systems of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. To help the concept and practice of meditation be more understandable to us in the West, teachers of meditation have adapted many of the Eastern spiritual practices and redrafted them into a beneficial, mindfulness practice.
Strong correlations from persuasive research find changes in both the physical condition of people actively meditating, and more importantly, the lasting effects of meditating on their levels of cognitive function. In addition to significantly lowering our cortisol levels—that devil of all chemicals that causes physical and mental decline, regular meditation can help in the following ways:
- Create a state of calmness
- Improve our response to stress
- Reduce our heart rate
- Improve our memory
- Improve our processing speed of information
- Help concentration
- Increase our feelings of being empowered
Truly exciting are the studies suggesting, “That meditation may decelerate, arrest, or perhaps even reverse age-related brain degeneration.” Dr. Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program, Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School reported this finding as early as 2005. My favorite dynamic girl duo, Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn and Dr. Elissa Epel, along with recent research done at UCLA with scientists at the Centre for Research on Ageing Health and Wellbeing, Australian National University, Canberra, Australia found that meditation could drastically slow down age-related brain tissue decline, significantly decreasing brain-aging. The cross-sectional studies are few, but these new results are very encouraging!
Do I meditate every day? I wish I could say yes, but the truth is, no. I do think about it every day, and do work it in most days, unless my hair is completely on fire. On the days I do take time to sit quietly, I feel so much better, I approach life in second gear instead of fifth, and I “don’t sweat the small stuff” nearly as much. I have no good answer as to why I don’t meditate every day, except to say, I’m human, and I do my best. 😉
Until next time….Be vibrant!
Meditation Benefits Our Body and Our Brain
July 8, 2019—Set in Our Ways
This behavior is happening in the US in greater numbers and is becoming a growing concern for seniors’ friends and family. More and more these seniors refuse to hear anything that defies their set beliefs, or their worldviews.
July 15, 2019—Tapping into a Better Brain
The latest research cites dancing as one of the outstanding ways to lay down new tracks in our aging brains and grow new brain cells along with sleeker muscles. I’m a work in progress but my personal experience with tap class has enriched my life.
July 22, 2019—It’s Never Too Late to Help Our Aging Brain
Telomeres, the protective end caps of our chromosomes, are found in every cell in our bodies. The longer and stronger our telomeres are, the higher functioning our brains and minds will be, and the less our bodies will decline and age. Exercise looks like the number one magic bullet to lengthen and strengthen our telomeres.
July 29, 2019—Food For Thought
Our telomeres become shorter when fat accumulates around our middles, and the focus of our choices needs to be on our metabolic health by maintaining ideal levels of blood sugar, triglycerides, good cholesterol, blood pressure, and waist circumference. A delicious upside for you: choosing fresh, whole (unprocessed) foods will ensure better metabolic health.
August 5, 2019—Your Brain on Food
For a longer, healthier life follow a Mediterranean diet rather than the traditional American diet of refined carbohydrates. Eating organic fruits and vegetables whenever possible and cutting back on sugar consumption will also ensure better gut and brain health.
August 12, 2019—Best Brain Foods for Memory, Concentration and Brain Health
Based on the latest research, here are a dandy dozen of the best things to “feed” your brain to help it, and you, function at your most vibrant.
August 19, 2019—Sugar Land
Knowing I was eating too much sugar, I decided to drop it from my diet for the days between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The resulting weight loss was beneficial, but more importantly, I was free of the sugar pull, free from wanting sweet things. That was empowering, very empowering, a sensation I continue to relish.
August 26, 2019—The Gut Brain Connection
Researchers have found a strong connection between the health of the gut and the general health of the rest of the body, most importantly for this discussion, the brain. By eating better, adopting a regimen of vitamins, and making a few lifestyle changes, we can strengthen our brains by lowering inflammation in our guts.
September 2, 2019—Let Me Sleep on That
Adequate sleep each night enhances every facet of our health and aging process. It strengthens different types of memories, clears waste products from the brain, offers immune protection against infections, and may lower the possibility of weight gain, depression, and the development of Type 2 diabetes.
September, 9, 2019—Sleep and Women at Midlife
The National Sleep Foundation Senior Health website recommends for adults 65 and older, 7-8 hours of sleep per night for better cognition, mental, and physical health. Seniors, especially women, suffer from sleep deprivation due to trouble falling asleep, tiredness, and the perchance for napping. Sleep issues affect as many as 25% of senior women.
September, 16, 2019—Sleep Suggestions, Part One
Setting a sleep schedule—and sticking with it is the number one suggestion for improving one’s sleep. Keeping a sleep journal, taking time to relax, reviewing medications, and monitoring caffeine and alcohol also help.
September, 23, 2019—Sleep Suggestions, Part Two
Several other hints for achieving the best sleep possible include cool bedroom temperatures, soothing books or music, monitoring light and outside noise, yoga, pillow position, and maintaining a mentally stimulating life.