Brain Expert, Dr. Kristen Willeumier of the Amen Clinics Talks: Brain Health, the Perils of Football, Violence, Healthy Habits and What Can Be Done to Help, Heal and Protect Our Brains

First, on behalf of myself and the entire CYInterview team, I would like to extend our condolences to all those affected by last week’s horrific school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.

Prior to the Newtown shooting, CYInterview was looking to gain greater insight into the nature of violent acts. This was in the wake of the murder of Kassandra Perkins, the girlfriend of NFL player Jovan Belcher, who reportedly killed her and then took his own life.

In light of these recent tragic events, and similar events in the recent past, many are wondering what can be done to stop this kind of violence. No doubt, this calls for a wide ranging discussion covering a multiplicity of topics.

One area that is being focused on is the state of mental health in America.

What causes someone to perpetrate horrific acts of violence? Do we spend enough time focused on mental health in America? When we do focus on mental health, to what extent do we actually focus on the brain as an organ as opposed to the mind?

Part of good mental wellbeing begins with taking care of the brain. We often hear about heart health, but how often do we hear about brain health?

For a lengthy discussion on the brain and brain health, we welcome Director of Research at the Amen Clinics, Dr. Kristen Willeumier. Kristen has conducted brain studies on NFL players that we spoke with Dr. Amen about back in 2010 [see here]. The Amen Clinics are known for their research on brain function, as well as their programs to restore brain health and hence optimal mental functioning.

Featured columnist Jay Bildstein joins me for this CYInterview. You can read the highlights of our conversation with Dr. Willeumier and listen to in its entirety below:

Listen to the entire Dr. Kristen Willeumier CYInterview:

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Discussing the reported murder of Kassandra Perkins by her boyfriend, NFL player Jovan Belcher, who subsequently took his own life, Dr. Willeumier says this:

“We’re really starting to understand that playing sports such as being in the NFL and as we would say, utilizing your head as a weapon results in loss, of long term damage to the brain and Jovan, being a young player still has probably acquired at least 12 years of playing time under his belt. … Being a linebacker, we found in our studies that the offensive lineman and the linebackers really take the most amount of hits over time. So Jovan is probably suffering from some issues from this long, the cognitive issues that come about from playing professional sports.

Add to that Jovan had issues with alcohol, so many of us know that he was stopped by the police that evening at three o’clock in the morning and then coupled with that, Jovan also had a history with guns. … So when you take all three factors into consideration, right. Playing sports in the NFL which is concussion based, plus the alcohol which really impairs judgment, plus being around, you know weapons. I think all of those things really contributed to the murder and then eventually his own suicide.”

Back in 2010, we spoke with Dr. Amen about the NFL studies the Amen Clinics had been conducting. Two years later, the study covers over 100 NFL players/participants. The doctor tells us about some of the things they have found:

“What we’ve found, when we’ve studied professional football players, is that they tend to have issues with their frontal lobes. So in our study, we had 81 percent of our players have damage to their frontal lobes and have problems with executive function and good judgment. So somebody who’s in Jovan’s position probably was having issues with right, making good decisions and when again impaired by alcohol that can result in some of the impulsive decisions such as committing murder. … The brain can be rehabilitated but you have to be really mindful and vigilant and do things pretty much on a daily basis to start taking care of the brain. …

I think having this information now out about football, what’s really gonna be helpful is as we talked about earlier, the younger kids right, kids who are playing peewee, junior high, high school, college, we want those parents to understand if that’s the track that you’re gonna put your child in, you really need to be mindful and watch you know, watch if they’re having problems in school, watch if they have daily headaches, right, watch if they complain of blurry vision, notice if there’s a change in their mood and really get them the help they need. So I think that’s where this can be I think beneficial to society.”

Research has shown that increased body fat can negatively impact the brain. The Director of Research at Amen Clinics explains how the size of our bodies impacts our brain:

“You’ve gotta think of fat as an inflammatory organ and fat tends to release what is cytokine, so these things can actually, can actually poke holes in cell membranes. So these free radicals and inflammatory cytokines can actually damage the brain and there’s been studies that show over time people who are overweight or obese actually have smaller brain size. So we really think it’s something that everybody could do. Anybody who’s got excess weight on their body, a very simple step is to start getting on a brain healthy weight loss program. … Start eating clean foods, bring the sugars down, right ‘cause sugar is toxic to brain function as well. So you know these are the messages I think people need to hear.”

Some in the medical community claim that a daily glass of red wine is good for your health. However, the Amen Clinics has noted that any form of alcohol is toxic to the brain. The doctor explains:

“I would rather have you take a resveratrol supplement, let’s put it that way. You could get it in other ways . … We have a lot of patients who come in and we say, ‘If you’re a healthy person, no more than one to two glasses of anything per week. If you’ve damaged your brain in any way, right, traumatic injury, stroke, you know, chemotherapy, refrain from all alcohol.’”

In focusing on the brain and our wellbeing, Doctor Kristen says the information is getting out there and people can take steps to having healthier brains and, consequently, better lives. If we all make healthier choices, it can assist in creating a better, safer society:

“We’re finally looking at the body as a whole. I think that there’s a whole new progressive movement in just health, right. I mean, we’re all eating organic now, right. We’re all learning about perils of soft drinks and high sugar diets. We’ve learned that fats are good. I don’t know if it’s sort of a collective movement in society that say, ’Hey! We want to be healthy, how do we do it?’ And we’ve come up with, at the Amen Clinics, with many steps that people could do to be brain healthy.”

You can find more information about the Amen Clinics at their official website here.

You can find more information about Dr. Kristen Willeumier here

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