Protecting Your Brain
Medical science has made wondrous advances to extend lifespan. But, despite our best efforts, long life does not always translate into good health. A worst-case scenario that many people fear is having a functioning body, stricken with dementia. Memory is at the core of who we are in many ways, and losing it is a frightening prospect.
More than five million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia. This number is estimated to triple by 2050. Memory loss is an early sign: as the disease advances, other symptoms include behavioral changes, disorientation and confusion, unfounded suspicions, difficulty speaking, and others. Imaging tests in Alzheimer’s patients reveal brain shrinkage and reduced brain cell activity in certain areas. Amyloid plaque deposits in the brain are also associated with progression of the disease.
Alzheimer’s is fatal and is the sixth-leading cause of death in the US. While the mortality rates for cancer, heart disease, and other conditions have gone down, Alzheimer’s rates are on the rise.
There is no specific test for Alzheimer’s, but there are a number of factors that can put us at greater risk. Genetics are part of that profile, but this relationship is not always clear. For example, a gene called ApoE4 (Apolipoprotein) increases the chance of developing Alzheimer’s, but does not make it a certainty. There are other genes that have a more direct link to the condition. They are associated with rare, usually early-onset, versions. Individuals may want to have a genetic profile analysis to clarify risk.
Heart health is emerging as a major factor. The brain is heavily reliant on oxygen and nutrients carried through the bloodstream, so any cardiovascular and circulatory problems have a ripple effect on cognitive health. High blood pressure and cholesterol can significantly raise the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia. In fact, a certain form of vascular Alzheimer’s is associated with cardiovascular disease, as reduced blood flow and plaque deposits in the brain mirror the same deadly processes occurring in the cardiovascular system. Natural therapies that reduce arterial and vascular plaque have been shown helpful for cardiovascular disease as well as Alzheimer’s.
Other major risk factors include a sedentary lifestyle, smoking, depression, diabetes, and obesity. Aluminum deposits in the brain are also a potential culprit, so avoiding everyday contact with this metal may reduce risks. It is a common food additive in many processed foods and baked goods, cookware, and utensils, as well as many over-the-counter medications like antacids. Women seem to have a slightly higher risk for the disease, but it’s unclear whether this is due to physiological differences, or because women on average have longer lifespans.
Can exercise help?
The relationship between exercise and brain power has been known for some time. Around 20 years ago, researchers at the Salk Institute found that active mice had more neurons in parts of the brain devoted to memory.
More recently, studies have shown that exercise may delay cognitive decline. As noted, reduced blood flow is a factor in Alzheimer’s and dementia, while better circulation seems to reduce risk. Exercise increases the number of small blood vessels throughout the body and has been found to enhance brain connectivity. Aerobic exercise, like walking and running, is particularly beneficial.
A number of studies have compared the mental acuity of older adults based on their activity. One study looked at women over 65 who walked 30 minutes each day. Other research examined the activity in people over 70. The results have been consistent: When compared to the sedentary control groups, active participants did better on mental tests and showed reduced cognitive decline.
But don’t neglect strength training. A recent study by scientists at the University of British Columbia found that women with mild cognitive impairment improved their memory following weight training. Results showed that women who did weight training and aerobics performed far better on memory tests than those who simply stretched.
This is a very fruitful field for research, and there are quite a few studies being conducted to determine whether exercise can specifically lower the risk of Alzheimer’s. However, given exercise’s proven benefits in other areas, it only makes sense to kick it up a notch.
What about diet?
Like exercise, eating well appears to reduce dementia risk. As noted, cardiovascular disease is a risk factor for cognitive decline. In other words, choosing foods that protect the heart—lean proteins, whole grains and legumes, healthy fats, and lots of fruits and vegetables—can improve brain health as well.
Incorporate leafy green and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and kale. Some research has shown that these can reduce cognitive decline. As a bonus, they are also good for the immune system and hormone metabolism.
Omega-3 fatty acids and other healthy fats also support brain health. One study showed that brains deficient in omega-3s tend to be smaller. Fatty fish like wild salmon are a great source as are raw nuts and seeds. Some animal studies have shown that one form of omega-3 (DHA) reduces amyloid plaque in the brain.
On the other end of the spectrum, studies show that the Western diet is a risk factor. This type of diet—heavy in refined carbohydrates, unhealthy fats, and processed foods—reduces learning and memory and contributes to other diseases, including cardiovascular disease.
We think of mental stress as the overwhelmed sensation we feel when too much is going on, but there’s another form that affects the brain. Oxidative stress happens when excess free radicals and toxins wreak havoc and cause chronic inflammation throughout the body. There is growing evidence linking oxidative stress with dementia, Alzheimer’s, and general cognitive decline.
One compound that has shown some promise in studies is resveratrol, a potent antioxidant found in high concentrations in red wine. Some studies have shown that people who drink moderate amounts of red wine have lower risk of Alzheimer’s. Animal studies have also shown that resveratrol reduces amyloid plaque.
Honokiol, an active compound derived from magnolia bark, is another powerful antioxidant shown to protect the brain through several mechanisms. Magnolia bark has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries as a mild sedative. Research shows that this calming effect is linked to honokiol’s actions on GABA receptors in the brain. As an antioxidant, honokiol is 1,000 times more powerful than vitamin E: it is also a potent anti-inflammatory compound. One of honokiol’s unique characteristics is that it can cross the blood-brain barrier, where it is shown to protect against brain inflammation and amyloid plaque deposits. Furthermore, honokiol stimulates the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is a critical benefit since Alzheimer’s patients have lower levels of acetylcholine. In my practice, I recommend 98-percent pure honokiol. You can read up on honokiol’s research and benefits at honokiolreport.org.
Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, has also been used in traditional Asian practices for centuries. Again, modern research is confirming its benefits. In another powerful study from the Salk Institute, a drug created from curcumin reversed Alzheimer’s in mice. More research will need to be done to confirm this finding, but it’s a good confirmation of curcumin’s benefits for brain health. Other studies have shown curcumin and turmeric to benefit memory and brain function, perhaps due to their powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits.
Good for the brain in many ways, meditation helps control stress and maintain positive mood. It also appears to improve memory. One study observed Alzheimer’s patients as they practiced a specific form of meditation. In follow-up tests, participants showed increased blood flow to the brain and improved scores on cognitive tests.
Another study showed that meditation can actually change how the brain is structured. Scientists at UCLA found that meditation increases the folding in the cerebral cortex, which improves how the brain processes information. This positively impacts our ability to retrieve memories, form decisions, and focus.
Social engagement also improves brain function. People who volunteer, attend lectures, work collaboratively, or have other forms of engagement tend to do better cognitively. This is no surprise: social engagement has been shown to increase lifespan, improve health, and decrease depression. It only makes sense that it would also benefit mental capabilities.
A number of studies have found that social connections can reduce dementia. Of course, as we age, social engagement can become more difficult. We may lose contact with peers, face reduced mobility, and have fewer opportunities to interact with others. While these obstacles are significant, they are not insurmountable. One of the best things we can do for our brain is to maintain connections with family, friends, and community.
While Alzheimer’s disease has no cure, that doesn’t mean we are helpless. Continuing research is highlighting many measures that can help control cognitive decline. By incorporating a healthy diet, regular exercise, smart supplementation, meditation, and social interaction, we take positive steps to keep our minds sharp as we age. In the process, we also boost cardiovascular health and improve our overall quality of life. It’s a yes-brainer, winning formula.
Isaac Eliaz, MD, MS, LAc, is a licensed acupuncturist, physician, and homeopath, has a MS in traditional Chinese medicine, and has done graduate studies in herbology. Visit him online at dreliaz.org.
Supplements help to keep brain healthy
If you want to keep mental aging at bay, new information suggests increasing your intake of nutrients. One nutrient in particular, citicoline, is particularly adept at enhancing brain function over time, says a recent study. It does this by increasing the activity of the mitochondria in neurons in order to produce energy.
This increased energy production supports the cells as they repair and maintain membranes, manufacture important brain chemicals, and broadcast electrical impulses. As the cellular level functions more effectively, it in turn enhances higher-level brain functions like memory, thought, sensations, and motor functions.
Because we don’t get enough citicoline in the food we eat, products containing ingredients like Cognizan can deliver a pure, vegetarian form of citicoline that supplies your brain with energy. In a recent study middle-aged women taking a citicoline supplement saw significant improvements in their focus, attention, and recall.
While diet, exercise, and teasing your memory help with increasing brain function over time, adding citicoline to your supplement schedule will make an impact you won’t forget.
Supplements help to keep brain healthy
Life Extension CDP-Choline 250 mg, 60 caps, $36, lef.org
Nawgan Alertness Beverage 12- 11.5 oz. cans, $27, nawgan.com
Jarrow Formulas: Citicoline 250 mg, 60 caps, $34, jarrow.com