Healthy To A Hundred: Ed Park of NeuroReserve On 5 Things You Need To Live A Long, Healthy, & Happy Life
An Interview With Savio P. Clemente
Curiosity and learning. Staying cognitively fit is critical. This creates new connections in the brain and builds our “cognitive reserve,” which helps us resist the process of brain aging. How do we do it? We keep learning, whether it be a new language, new musical instrument, playing games, doing crossword puzzles, or avid reading. Don’t take for granted the ability to learn. It takes practice, and the more practice, the stronger the brain.
The term Blue Zones has been used to describe places where people live long and healthy lives. What exactly does it take to live a long and healthy life? What is the science and the secret behind longevity and life extension? In this series, we are talking to medical experts, wellness experts, and longevity experts to share “5 Things You Need To Live A Long, Healthy, & Happy Life”. As a part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Edward Park, Ph.D..
Edward Park, Ph.D. is the founder of NeuroReserve, a preventive health and nutrition company dedicated to healthy brain aging. Ed’s career in health innovation spans over 18 years, where he led development of novel therapeutics for people with severe malnutrition due to rare diseases — and his personal passion for brain health arose from his family experience with neurodegenerative disease and dementia (his father) and seeing their devastating effects first-hand. Today, Ed continues to lead NeuroReserve, and he is a frequent speaker on health/wellness talks and podcasts, covering the latest news in Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, dementia, and brain healthy lifestyle. Ed received a Ph.D. in chemical-biomolecular engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology and a M.S. and M.B.A. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’?
Certainly, and thank you for having me in this series on having a long and healthy life. I’d say the most important part of my backstory is that I have a personal experience with neurodegenerative disease — through my father. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at the age of 48, which is very young for that disease. Most people with Parkinson’s are diagnosed at ages 65 and older. As you may know, Parkinson’s is a neurodegenerative disease that typically affects movement, causing tremors and rigidity. It’s “degenerative” because it gets worse and worse, until people have trouble speaking and swallowing and ultimately living. Also, what most people don’t know is that Parkinson’s often leads to other brain conditions, particularly cognitive decline and dementia. My father fought both Parkinson’s disease AND dementia for 19 years, almost two decades. I was only in my early teens when he was first diagnosed, and so witnessing his bravery, his struggle, and my mother’s loving and dedicated caregiving was very formative for me, both in good and bad ways. A strong appreciation for being healthy was good, but brain disease paranoia and guilt were bad. In the bigger picture, I know that my story is not unique. There are more and more families being affected by neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and other types of dementias at earlier and earlier ages. It’s becoming a major health crisis. For me, that experience led me into health products and innovation, where I specialized in developing new treatments for people with rare and genetic diseases, like cystic fibrosis, chronic pancreatitis, phenylketonuria, and growth failure. A lot of it involved malnutrition, which ultimately helped me conceive and launch NeuroReserve, the brain nutrition company I founded.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
This may not be as interesting as it is impactful for me: one treatment I helped develop and launch was a cartridge that helps people “predigest” the fat in their food. We did this initially to help people with cystic fibrosis, or CF. Most people may know that CF affects the lungs and breathing, but it also affects the pancreas and digestion. Many people with CF have trouble getting proper nourishment because they can’t produce the enzymes needed to digest the food they eat. And a small portion of CF patients are so severely malnourished that they need to get their food through a tube directly into their stomach or gut. We developed the cartridge for those people who have it worst, and seeing them be able to digest their food and gain weight was eye-opening to me. We changed their lives, but for most of us, being able to eat a meal, breathe easily, and go about our day is something most of us don’t even think about for a moment. It gave me a new appreciation for the “invisible” things that usual come to us with little or no effort. Fast forwarding to today and my work in brain health, being able to read a clock, carry a conversation, and decide what we’re going to do for the day are things that come naturally, but it’s amazing how intricate and fragile those abilities can be. We need to care for them.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful for who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’m very grateful to my father and mother. I know, it’s cliché! My father, given his decades-long battle with neurodegeneration, showed me bravery and selflessness. He would always tell me to go pursue what I wanted to do and not to worry about him, and even after his dementia set-in, he had the same attitude in his moments of cognition. My mother taught me what true faith, love, and determination look like as a caregiver. She was also selfless, and at some point for every dementia caregiver, they reach a point where they’re exhausted and they can’t leave the house because the patient needs them 24/7. Even after my mother reached that point, she still delighted in providing my father with his favorite meals. That kind of love is inspiring.
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
First: Courage in the face of uncertainty and even potential disaster is very important. I’ve been in situations where I’m afraid and I need courage many times, and I expect to be there again and again! Without courage, it would be impossible for me to pursue new and innovative things. If we’re going to live a life to our fullest, we’ll need to face fears, doing that requires courage, and courage requires faith, or belief. There’s saying that stuck with me, something like this: “We all believe in something; the only question is what we choose to put our belief in.” It can be God, karma, many things, but for me to make a major move, I need courage rooted in belief.
Second: Having a grateful heart. It changes my whole attitude and outlook on a daily basis. People can be looking at the same thing, but what they see could be very, very different. A grateful heart protects us from poisonous attitudes like regret, arrogance, comparing ourselves to others, and glass-is-half-empty thinking. It doesn’t come naturally to me. I have to keep reminding myself, and I’m always amazed at how it helps me hold on to joy AND ALSO make better decisions.
Third: Focus on helping people. It’s really easy for me to think about my checklist for the day and how it helps ME, but what I’ve realized is that looking at that checklist and seeing who it will help, or rewriting it so that it helps others, always leads to better priorities. Our true value to the world is how much we help people, individual by individual. It’s so easy to forget, but it’s so simple: If I help someone, then I’ve done something valuable, and being valuable is being successful. I have to keep chanting that to myself!
All three are fundamentally about attitude: Do I have courage or do I lack the belief? Am I grateful or angry? Am I helping someone or am I not really helping anyone in particular?
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of our interview about health and longevity. To begin, can you share with our readers a bit about why you are an authority in the fields of health, wellness, and longevity? In your opinion, what is your unique contribution to the world of wellness?
“Authority” is a big title, and it usually implies a combination of expertise and impact. I guess you can say I’m an authority in nutrition, nutritional interventions, and brain health. I think an important piece of my authority is in developing first-of-a-kind nutritional therapeutics for people with rare and genetic diseases, as mentioned earlier. Ultimately, I love R&D; I love being a creator and builder. I’m grateful to have played leadership roles in taking innovative products from conception, through design, testing, regulatory approval, production, and launch — and then most importantly to see them help people, particularly people who are malnourished. Health and wellness rest upon the foundation of nutrition and nourishment.
My specific niche today is in brain health, wellness, and longevity. Founding NeuroReserve as a brain nutrition and preventive health company was the perfect way to merge my own family experience with neurodegenerative disease with my expertise in nutrition. Through that, we built a totally new kind of brain nutritional product, based on a whole-diet approach. From an impact standpoint, it’s wonderful to see the difference we’re making in people’s lives, strengthening people’s cognitive performance and giving people confidence that they’re receiving the most advanced, evidence-based nutrition for brain health. When people thank us for what we’ve provided them through NeuroReserve or after I give a presentation about brain health, it’s very gratifying, and I know we’re making an impact. It’s important to say, I am not an authority on my own. We have a wonderful medical and scientific team from institutions like the Cleveland Clinic, Rush University Medical Center, Barrow Neurological Institute, and Tufts School of Nutrition. My hope is that NeuroReserve becomes my unique contribution to wellness, taking brain nutrition to the next level in terms of innovation and efficacy.
Seekers throughout history have traveled great distances and embarked on mythical quests in search of the “elixir of life,” a mythical potion said to cure all diseases and give eternal youth. Has your search for health, vitality, and longevity taken you on any interesting paths or journeys? We’d love to hear the story.
Several years ago, I had some health problems that forced me to actively seek help. That meant I had to get over my fears of what I could learn about my personal health and risk of certain diseases. That’s the scary part of health journeys, and I’m sure many can relate to it. However, it opened my eyes. I met many types of physicians, heard many perspectives, and I started going to scientific and medical conferences, and I realized there’s small but dedicated community of researchers who are breaking new ground in brain nutrition. It inspired me to found NeuroReserve, so that’s quite a change in path. But that was just the beginning, because to build NeuroReserve, I got to know and team-up with renowned researchers from Cleveland Clinic, Barrow Neurological Institute, Rush University Medical Center, and Tufts School of Nutrition. It was great to meet people who wanted to help and who are on the same mission. Most unexpectedly are the people I’ve met in the dementia caregiving community. It’s said that dementia is a “family disease,” since everyone participates to some extent as a caregiver. The relationships I’ve made and support we’ve been able to provide to caregiver and patient advocacy groups has been wonderful. These advocates and caregivers come from all walks of life: families and patients, brain health cooks, celebrities, best selling authors, and recipients of caregiver relief funding who can have some well-earned rest from taking care of their loved one. The journey is so sweet because of the people I’ve met along the way. The journey may seem like it’ll be lonely at the start, but you quickly make friends along the way!
Based on your research or experience, can you please share your “5 Things You Need To Live A Long & Healthy Life”? (Please share a story or an example for each)
Since my specialty is brain health, I’ll focus on that. It’s important to focus on the brain, since most people don’t realize that the brain ages just like our skin, our joints, our vision, and everything else about us. The popular notion is that the brain is insulated from the rest of the body behind our skull, and nothing really goes in or out, besides maybe water. However, the truth is that the brain is well-exposed and connected to many facets of our body, like our immune system and our gastrointestinal tract. So the brain is constantly challenged, and it ages just like everything else. Our brains define who we are. The brain carries our unique personality and emotions. It’s how we take-in information, process it, react, and make decisions. It’s how we learn, create, enjoy, and love. So, it’s immensely important that to live a long and healthy life, you absolutely must have a healthy brain.
Here are five things for a long and healthy “brainspan:”
1. Relationships. The very purpose of our brains is to help us survive and thrive in the context of relationships with other people. Why relationships? Because when we boil everything down, relationships give us meaning and purpose in life. This means getting to know others, learning about their hopes and dreams, helping them out, and accepting help from them. For our brains, it keeps them active! Talking, sharing, joking, and social interactions are important for cognition. In “Blue Zones” where people live the longest, like Ikaria (Greece), Sardinia (Italy), and Nicoya Peninsula (Costa Rica), the “oldest” people still play an important role in the community, educating and helping raise children, maintaining traditions, and volunteering. With that comes relationships and the healthiest brains on earth! So, make it a priority to reach-out to your family and friends and spend time with them. It’s no surprise that to have a long and healthy life, you need relationships and the purpose they bring.
2. Diet. Everyone knows that a well-balanced diet is healthy for the body, but groundbreaking research over the past decade is showing that diet and nutrition are extremely important for long-term brain health. Some of the best evidence for brain benefits come from the Mediterranean and MIND diets (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay), originally invented at Rush University Medical Center. The MIND is significantly linked to over 50% reduction in risk of Alzheimer’s disease and 8 years younger cognitive age (I like the idea of thinking like I’m almost a decade younger!). These diets focus on consuming leafy green vegetables, berries, olive oil, fish, nuts, legumes, seeds, whole grains, and poultry and wine (in moderation). Just as importantly, they limit consumption of red meat, sweets, saturated fats, and processed foods. The Mediterranean and MIND diets were a huge inspiration to me for NeuroReserve, and we naturally base our products on the evidence of these brain healthy diets. Also, it’s worthy to note that the Blue Zones, which have the lowest rates of dementia, follow very similar diets.
3. Exercise. Believe it or not, exercise is very healthy for the brain. In fact, when a person exercises, muscle contractions release chemical signals for the brain the grow new nerve cells. It’s a strange but beautiful linkage. Also, increased blood flow that exercise brings also helps to nourish the brain. So, now we have yet another and perhaps most important reason to stay physically fit: keep our brains healthy and cognitively intact.
4. Sleep. Sleep is often the first casualty of our busy lives, since it’s so easy to cut out an hour here or there and make-up for it with coffee or an energy drink, but brain health gives us a reason to make it a priority again. Most obviously, if we’re sleep-deprived, you’ll notice that it’s harder to concentrate and learn. That’s already a strike against brain health. Also, sleep plays a critical maintenance role in brain health: it’s when waste products are flushed out of the brain. Chronic lack of sleep deprives the brain of this opportunity to “take out the trash,” and waste and toxins accumulate. And importantly, sleep is when memories are “locked-in” or consolidated for long-term storage. So making sleep a priority will help you learn, keep your brain clean, and help retain precious memories. It’s a win-win-win.
5. Curiosity and learning. Staying cognitively fit is critical. This creates new connections in the brain and builds our “cognitive reserve,” which helps us resist the process of brain aging. How do we do it? We keep learning, whether it be a new language, new musical instrument, playing games, doing crossword puzzles, or avid reading. Don’t take for granted the ability to learn. It takes practice, and the more practice, the stronger the brain.
Can you suggest a few things needed to live a life filled with happiness, joy, and meaning?
I’ll re-emphasize relationships here. Deep relationships are the fountain from which happiness, joy, and meaning flow. Our brains are wired for relationships. Some relationships bring joy, some bring happiness, and even tough relationships bring meaning. The bigger picture is that as much as we’d like to avoid saying it, we are all going to die. So, what is true longevity? What is the elixir we all seek? It’s our legacy: the people we affect while we live and how they carry our memory, speak about us, and teach others what we’ve taught them long after we’re gone. We become “immortal” through those who follow us.
As I mentioned earlier about the Blue Zones, relationships are an important reason why people in those regions live longer than everyone else in the world. Their communities and customs motivate social interaction and relationship building, not only within generations, but across generations, connecting the young with the “old.”
Some argue that longevity is genetic, while others say that living a long life is simply a choice. What are your thoughts on this nature vs. nurture debate? Which is more important?
It’s both. They impact each other, so in many cases, we can choose whether nature or nurture plays the more important role. Brain health is an excellent example. There’s a gene called APOE, and there are different numbered variants of it, called APOE2, APOE3, and APOE4. Every person gets a pair of them. If a person has one or two APOE4’s, they have a significantly higher chance of being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease at some point in their life. It doesn’t mean they definitely WILL get Alzheimer’s; it just predisposes them. However, diet and lifestyle choices can reduce the impact of APOE4. So, if a person works hard at good relationships, diet, exercise, sleep, cognitive fitness, and cardiovascular health, the impact of APOE4 could be dramatically reduced. The reverse can also be true. A person without APOE4 would have a lower chance of Alzheimer’s, but if they have an unhealthy lifestyle, their risk goes up anyway. Many if not most genes are like that. Of course, there are some genes that are “dominant,” like those that cause familial Alzheimer’s disease, but those are rare. In most cases, our life choices matter a lot, and they can “bend” our genetics to our benefit.
Life sometimes takes us on paths that are challenging. How have you managed to bounce back from setbacks in order to cultivate physical, mental, and emotional health?
I would answer this question the same way that I answered the question about the three character traits that are instrumental to my success: courage, a grateful heart, and keeping the focus on helping people. They push out all the negativity that could come with challenging times.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
Theodore Roosevelt once said: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” I remember seeing that quote in a frame in coffee shop in central Massachusetts, when I was contemplating whether to pursue a new company devoted to brain nutrition. It reminded me that there is always something we can do. No matter where we’re at in life, no matter how “big” or “small” we are, we can always do something important and make an impact on someone’s life. It made me realize, things will never be perfect; we just have to go out there and do it.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I hope I’m helping to lead a movement right now to educate and equip people to the threat of neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other dementias, and provide them with clear actions to reduce their chances or even prevent those diseases altogether. We need a movement for this. Alzheimer’s disease and other age-related brain diseases are the great health challenge of the 21st century. Over the past 20 years, the change in cause of death from major diseases such as heart disease, stroke, HIV, breast cancer, and prostate cancer have all stayed flat or gone down. We’ve made great progress with those. In the same period, the cause of death due to Alzheimer’s disease went up by 145%. Today, the US has almost 6 million people with Alzheimer’s, and that’s set to triple within the next 25 years, which means the annual economic burden to the country will go from about $600 billion to approaching $2 trillion, if counting all neurodegenerative diseases. That’s unsustainable. It has the potential of collapsing major institutions like Medicare, healthcare systems, and senior living. It’s a mountain that will make COVID look like a tiny bump in the road.
So, we need a movement for this. I hope my work and NeuroReserve will help take us up a level in preventive nutrition, but it requires many more people and organizations to get involved. It’s a huge issue. The good news is that people are starting to wake up to this challenge. Patient advocacy groups, caregiver organizations, healthcare groups, and the federal government are putting focus on it. They know that prevention through healthy diet and lifestyle must play a big role if we’re going to stave-off this dementia epidemic, and maybe one day there may even be effective treatments for people who are diagnosed.
What is the best way for our readers to continue to follow your work online?
The best way to keep track of my work is by following @neuroreserve on Instagram. That’s where we update people on the latest brain healthy and longevity tips, the latest research that we or others are doing, and ways in which we or you can help patient advocacy and caregiver groups. For occasional emails directly from me, you can also visit neuroreserve.com and sign-up for the newsletter. Thanks so much again for having me!
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent on this. We wish you only continued success.