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Who would you be if you couldn’t recall your memories? As people age, the fear of losing their identity to mental decline becomes more prevalent, and for good reason: Rates of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of cognitive loss are on the rise. But with the right protective steps, we may be able to reduce these risks and increase our general health in the process. Healthy nutrition and lifestyle are our smartest defenses for overall brain health.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than 5 million Americans have the disease, the most common form of dementia. This number could triple by 2050. While the mortality rates for cancer, heart disease and other conditions go down, Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia and cognitive loss are increasing.
A number of factors may be responsible, including genetics, but this relationship is far from conclusive. Many of the genetic risks are associated with rare, usually early onset, versions of Alzheimer’s disease. Cardiovascular health plays a large role, in part because the brain relies on a good supply of oxygen and nutrients to function properly. High blood pressure and cholesterol can also increase risks of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Additional risks include smoking, unhealthy diet, pollution, depression, obesity and even diabetes.
Diabetes Type 3?
Over the past several years, Alzheimer’s has earned the nickname “diabetes type 3.” Simply put, insulin resistance — a hallmark of metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes — damages brain cells and aggravates memory loss and disorientation, along with other problems. Also, sugar and excess blood glucose fuel inflammation throughout the body, including the brain, furthering cognitive decline over time. So it makes sense that many of the steps we take to address diabetes and metabolic syndrome, such as a low-glycemic diet and regular exercise, can also support brain health.
The relationship between regular physical activity and brainpower has been known for some time. As noted, reduced blood flow is a factor in dementia. In particular, aerobic exercise, such as walking and running, has been shown to be helpful.
But don’t ignore the importance of 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. The researchers conducting the study followed these women for several months as they lifted weights, performed aerobic exercise or stretched. At the end of six months, the women in the weights and aerobics groups did far better on memory tests than the ones who simply stretched.
A low-sugar, low-glycemic diet can support brain health in a number of ways. Nutrient-dense foods such as lean protein, healthy fats and complex carbohydrates from vegetables, sprouted grains and legumes offer sustained, healthy energy for the brain and keep inflammation in check. Emphasize green leafy and cruciferous vegetables in your diet: items like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and kale. Some research has shown that these can reduce cognitive decline.
Foods that are rich in antioxidants are also important. These include berries, raw cacao, sprouted legumes, nuts and many others. Antioxidant foods provide significant anti-inflammatory support, and they help to control harmful free radical molecules that wreak havoc throughout the body, including the brain. Antioxidants such as vitamins A, C and E are also shown to reduce depression and support neurotransmitter activity in the brain.
As noted, cardiovascular disease is a risk factor for cognitive decline. In other words, choosing foods that protect the heart — lean proteins, whole grains, lots of fruits and vegetables — can also improve brain health.
Omega-3 fatty acids have also been found to support brain health. Fatty fish, like salmon, are a great source, as are nuts and flax seeds. Animal studies have shown that Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a form of omega-3, reduces the beta amyloid plaques found in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. DHA is essential for brain development as well as for ongoing structural maintenance. DHA is primarily found in seafood but is also found in some species of algae. The healthiest seafood choices include salmon and small fish such as anchovies, sardines and herring.
Avoid the standard american diet (SAD), which is heavy in inflammation-fueling processed foods. Sugar, gluten and unhealthy fats may be the biggest culprits in brain inflammation. Animal studies have shown that this type of diet reduces learning and memory.
Herbs And Nutrients
Numerous herbs, compounds and nutrients have been found to support neurons, boost blood flow to the brain and protect against cerebral inflammation, among other benefits. For example, a recent study found that polyphenol chemicals found in cacao beans may protect against neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Cacao is rich in antioxidants, so researchers originally attributed this neuro-protection to cacao’s actions against harmful free radicals in the brain. However, new research shows that cacao polyphenols also work by interacting with biochemical pathways that specifically protect against brain cell death.
Another protective compound is resveratrol, an antioxidant found in red wine and other herbal sources such as Japanese knotweed. Preclinical studies have shown that resveratrol reduces the amyloid plaque tangles that are found in the brains of those with Alzheimer’s disease.
An important antioxidant shown to protect the brain is honokiol, which is derived from Magnolia bark. Honokiol has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years as a mild sedative, and it is 1,000 times more powerful than vitamin E in its ability to neutralize free radicals. Importantly, honokiol crosses the blood/brain barrier, where it fights inflammation, modulates specific neurotransmitters, protects against the beta amyloid plaque deposits found in Alzheimer’s disease and has other powerful benefits.
Considering the relationship between cardiovascular disease and dementia, we should also work to improve circulation. Found in a fermented soybean product called natto, nattokinase is a powerful enzyme that promotes healthy blood flow and reduces inflammation. Another good supplement for circulation is the amino acid L-carnitine, which is also an antioxidant.
A growing body of research is confirming the links between toxins, brain health, cardiovascular health and overall wellness. For example, a recent report linked air pollution with cognitive decline in older people. Other correlations between heavy metal toxicity and neurological damage have been noted. Healthy detoxification, done slowly and gently, may play an important role in protecting brain health over time.
Research shows that meditation is great for the brain. It helps control stress and maintains a positive mood. It also appears to improve memory. A study of people with mild cognitive decline or Alzheimer’s who performed meditation found, in follow-up tests, that participants increased blood flow to the brain and improved their scores on cognitive tests.
Another study showed that meditation alters the brain structure. Specifically, meditation increases folding in the cerebral cortex, which improves how the brain deals with information. This positively impacts the ability to retrieve memories, make decisions and focus.
People who volunteer, take classes, work collectively or have other forms of group engagement appear to do better cognitively over the long term. This is no surprise; social engagement has been shown to increase lifespan, improve health and decrease depression. A number of studies have found that social connections can reduce dementia. One of the best things we can do for our brain and overall health is to maintain positive relationships as we age and build new ones along the way.
Ongoing research into this important field of prevention and treatment continues to uncover new ways that we can support and protect cognitive health. By incorporating these and other beneficial steps, we can help keep our minds sharp over time and enhance our overall health in the process.
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