JFS workshop explores connection between eye and brain health.

There’s a long-standing connection between vision and cognition.

Studies show that loss of vision may be associated with cognitive function impairment in older adults, while other research shows that treating the eyes can also help treat the brain supporting a strong link between eye health and brain health.

Dr. Anna Santillan
Dr. Anna Santillan

It’s one topic, among others, that will be presented by Dr. Anna Santillan and Dr. Darlene Kim from Henry Ford OptimEyes optical care center as part of Jewish Family Service’s ongoing Gray Matters free brain health workshops on Jan. 18.

The online Zoom event will run from 1-2:30 p.m., with registration now open. Following a presentation on eye and brain health, there will also be a Q&A session.

Attendees can expect to learn how proper diet, exercise and lifestyle habits can all influence eye health, and therefore potentially influence cognition as well.

Brain-Healthy Diets

Dr. Santillan says one of the main focuses of the presentation will be on the MIND diet, which is a brain-healthy diet created to help prevent dementia and slow decline in brain function that can occur at any age.

“It’s a cross between the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet,” she explains.

The MIND diet is full of foods rich in vitamins, carotenoids and flavonoids that are believed to protect the brain (these tend to be plant-based foods such as whole grains, green leafy vegetables, fruits and nuts). However, it’s not just a gimmick.

Research shows that following the MIND diet leads to better cognitive performance in older adults, while consuming carotenoids and flavonoids that the diet is high in can actually help prevent macular degeneration and eye-related diseases.

“That’s a correlation with the eye,” Santillan confirms, “because a lot of these fruits and vegetables are healthy for the eye and they’re also healthy for the brain.”

Foods high in carotenoids, for example, include spinach, kale, broccoli and carrots (so, if you’ve been told to eat carrots for better vision, there’s truth to the folk saying). Flavonoids, on the other hand, can be found in tea, citrus fruit and juices, berries, red wine and legumes.

Also beneficial for eye health are Omega-3 fatty acids, which are healthy fats found in foods like salmon, mackerel, oysters and trouts. This nutrient can be especially helpful for those who work at computers all day and experience straining in their eyes.

“We’re seeing dry eyes in a lot of young individuals,” Santillan says, who notes that dry eye complaints (especially among young people) have skyrocketed in recent years, likely due to overuse of phones and computers. Previously, these complaints were only prevalent in individuals over the age of 40.

“I would also tell someone to take a vision break from the computer and look far away every 20 minutes,” she advises. “Look out a window to give the eyes a rest from being at the computer.”

Exercise and Sleep

Still, brain-healthy nutrition isn’t the only key to preserving eye health. Exercise is a major component of eye and brain function that Santillan recommends making a regular lifestyle habit. The key, however, is knowing which exercise may be beneficial.

“20 minutes of cardiovascular exercise a day is optimum for brain health,” Santillan says. “A study showed that this was the minimum amount needed to decrease total inflammation for the body.”

Ironically, Santillan also says that weightlifting, or strength training, is best for eye health in particular – and studies show that resistance training can actually decrease intraocular pressure, which high levels of can lead to glaucoma or blindness.

Lastly, Santillan recommends getting quality shut-eye to optimize eye and brain health. “Certain things that can cause declining cognition are lack of sleep,” she says. “Not sleeping well can cause brain shrinkage.”

In particular, lack of sleep causes shrinkage in parts of the brain involved in reasoning, planning, memory and problem-solving. It also decreases tear production and makes your eyes more sensitive. Therefore, getting quality sleep is essential for your eyes and brain.

These are just some of many pearls of wisdom on eye and brain health that Santillan and Kim plan to present at the Gray Matters workshop. Gray Matters is an ongoing workshop series that addresses brain health as part of Mind University from JFS.

To register for Pearls of Wisdom to Optimize Eye and Brain Health, click here. You can also enroll by contacting MindU@jfsdetroit.org or 248-788-MIND.

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