July 2017

 

PREVENT AND PROTECT

 

The steps you can take to guard your brain
against dementia: starting now.
 

 

If you need proof that there are reasons to feel optimistic about dementia, consider that we’re now seeing literature that has dementia and prevention in the same sentence.  Simply seeing this is a sign of progress.  Fifteen years ago, research efforts were focused on finding a cure.  While that mission continues, science has since revealed game-changing clues as to how we might be able to protect ourselves.  The biggie is that dementia can begin in the brain up to three decades before the first signs of cognitive problems.  That slow build means you have time to reduce your risk of developing the disease or, at the very least, delay it, even if you have a genetic predisposition.  The belief is that if people start taking preventive measures we could potentially decrease the incidence of dementia by about 30 percent.  Here’s how to be proactive:

Exercise for your mind.  Cerebral cardio: If you want to reduce amyloid plagues in your brain, work out on a regular basis.  Aerobic exercise is associated with increased gray matter volume in the brain’s cortex, where memory networks are housed.  Physical activity can also help protect the hippocampus, another part of the brain essential to memory, from disease-related shrinkage.  It stimulates the birth and growth of nerve cells in the brain, increases vessel formation so blood can nourish these cells, and boosts levels of brain growth factors.

Mental toning.  High-intensity strength training two or three days per week for six months improved brain function in people with mild cognitive impairment, and the results likely apply to healthy younger adults.   One theory is that hormonal responses that help you build muscle may also help your brain grow new cells.

Mind-expanding yoga: An effective stress buster, yoga may help the brain in several ways.   Stress hormones like cortisol are associated with decreased hippocampus volume, impairing memory; stress-induced inflammation is linked to neuronal damage.  The rhythmic breathing and stretching associated with yoga can help on both fronts.

Make smart food choices.  Research has made it clear that your cranium craves plants.  That’s one principle behind the MIND (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) diet, a strategic combination of two brain-beneficial eating plans: the Mediterranean-style diet and the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet.  Eating the Mediterranean way has been linked to preserving brain volume, while sticking to the DASH diet has been found to improve blood flow to the brain.  These 2 approaches have been modified to reflect what we’ve learned over the past 20 years about how nutrition affects the brain.  The MIND diet emphasizes vegetables and nuts; limits animal products, hydrogenated oils and concentrated carbohydrates, and recommends foods that have been shown to buoy brain health.   In the literature, subjects who were faithful to the MIND approach to dining added the equivalent of 7.5 healthy brain years.   In addition, subjects in the same group were also found to have a 53% reduced risk of dementia compared to those who were less dedicated.

 

The MIND diet’s ten brain-boosting foods (with minimum recommended amounts):

 
  • leafy green vegetables (6 servings per week)
  • other vegetables (1 serving per day)
  • nuts (5 servings per week)
  • berries (2 servings per week)
  • beans (3 servings per week)
  • whole grains (2 servings per day)
  • fish (1 serving per week)
  • poultry (2 servings per week)
  • olive oil (your main cooking oil)
  • wine, preferably red (1 serving per day which is 6 oz)

 

Olive oil, nuts, whole grains and leafy greens are rich in vitamin E, which is thought to protect against the buildup of toxic amyloid plaques in the brain as well as safeguard neurons from damaging free radicals.  Omega-3s like DHA (in seafood and walnuts) help improve brains cells’ ability to communicate with one another.  And it’s important to get enough vitamin B12 (plentiful in poultry and fish) since a deficiency can lead to memory loss.  Nowhere on the list: sweets.  That’s because a diet high in concentrated carbohydrates can lead to obesity and type 2 diabetes, both of which dramatically increase dementia risk.  Cut added sweeteners as much as possible if you want a healthy brain. 

 

Train your brain wisely.  Puzzles like Sudoku were once counted among the savviest ways to stay mentally nimble.  But research on brain training has been inconsistent and inconclusive.  These types of games tap only a very narrow component of your brain.  Much more effective is to focus on activities that use a complex array of mental processes.  One way to strengthen your cognitive abilities is to continually learn and do new things, which may help build and fortify the neural connections that can slow brain aging.  Try these:

 
  • Start a bucket list of hobbies.  Worry less about what you’re good at and focus more on something you’ve always wanted to try.  Learn to tango, write a haiku, make your own jewelry, whatever strikes your fancy.
  • Set a timer.  To potentially lower your risk of dementia, aim to spend at least an hour each day on mentally stimulating activities.
  • Make it a party.  Social connections can help build new brain cells and neural networks.

 

Jessica Migala