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It’s bad enough to decline physically. Mental decline is even worse. The idea of losing cognitive ability frightens everyone. It’s especially frightening if you’ve witnessed anyone descend into the abyss of Alzheimer’s. Our ability to think makes us human. Our memories are the record of our life. When dementia robs a person of these, they’ve lost something truly precious.
Take the case of Edith, one of my elderly patients. She had a shuffling gait and a vacant gaze. Because of her live-in caregiver, she was neatly dressed and groomed. As she sat, she looked at the woman next to her, her daughter, and asked: “Where’s Kate? Do you know where Kate is?” “I’m here Mom. I’m Kate.” “No you’re not, my Kate is a little girl. Where’s Kate?”
Sadly, I’ve seen too many people like Edith. But it doesn’t have to happen. You can stay mentally clear and crisp well into old age. You know this to be true — you’ve seen it. I’m sure at some point you’ve met a person with plenty of years under his or her belt who was still sharp as anything. Aren’t those people a delight? Don’t they exude life?
It’s possible to grow old and age minimally. But it doesn’t happen by accident. Habitual choices carry long term consequences. Research gives us some pretty strong suggestions on how to stay sharp as we grow old.
Here’s a quick rundown of some ways to maintain your mental edge over time. You’ll see some familiar recommendations. A healthy lifestyle benefits all of you, including your brain.
People who are active are at lower risk for mental decline. Some studies even show improved mental function in elderly people who start a walking program after years of being sedentary.
Obviously, there are a lot of other reasons you should exercise. Maintaining your wits just emphasizes the importance of an exercise program. You can read about several effective, efficient exercise programs in most issues of Total Health Breakthroughs. Pick one and stay with it.
Eat a healthy diet, especially one high in fruits and vegetables. The antioxidants and micronutrients they contain go a long way toward protecting brain function. Researchers are looking at the effects of many different foods. Here are some of the findings.
The type of fat in your diet affects brain function. Omega-3 fatty acids are an important component in all neural tissue. A diet high in omega-3 fatty acids leads to lower levels of inflammation and improved brain function. Fish are a good source of these types of fats. Unfortunately, in today’s world you need to be concerned that fish can be tainted by contaminants such as heavy metals and PCBs. Even so, I still eat salmon at least once a week and take fish oil supplements daily.
Other fats affect brain function as well. It turns out that fats that help your heart also help your brain. Researchers in Italy examined people several times over an 8-year period. Those who ate less saturated fat and more monounsaturated fats (like olive oil) showed significantly better cognitive function at the end of the study. (1) In other words, the Mediterranean Diet helps your brain and heart.
India has a low incidence of dementia. The obvious question is why. The answer may be in the diet. A study from the National University of Singapore documented a much lower rate of dementia in people who ate curry regularly as opposed to those who ate it rarely. (2)
One reason curries may be helpful is that they often contain turmeric. Turmeric has high levels of curcumin which has significant anti-inflammatory action. It’s actually been shown to reverse plaque formation in animal models of Alzheimer’s disease.
Other spices in curries such as ginger, cinnamon, and garlic have health benefits as well. All in all, it’s a good reason to develop a taste for Indian food.
Blueberries contain some of the highest levels of antioxidants of any fruit. In animal studies, adding blueberries to the diet protects against brain aging and the impairment in learning ability and memory that goes with it. (3)
A study from Japan has shown that people who drink two cups of green tea a day had a 50% lower risk of dementia compared to those who drank less than 3 cups a week. Black tea and coffee failed to show this benefit. (4)
Stress raises levels of hormones that inhibit brain function and actually damage brain cells. Therefore it’s important to learn techniques to deal with stress that defuse this risk. Practices such as meditation, guided imagery, and especially the stress reduction program HeartMath all help in this area.
Physical exercise is good for you, and so is mental exercise. The brain is remarkably “plastic” even into old age. This means that new connections can be formed between brain cells at any age. You can stimulate this type of growth by doing new things.
Dr. Willis and her colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania showed that cognitive training improved brain function and that the improvement persisted over the five years of the study. (5)
Learning a foreign language, working on challenging puzzles, and reading fascinating books all stimulate cognitive development. Not to mention the fact that they make life more enjoyable.
I believe your diet should be your main source of nutrients. Having said that, consider these supplements to give yourself an extra edge.
As I mentioned, omega-3 fatty acids are critical for brain function. They suppress inflammation, which is partly responsive for deterioration of the brain, as well as a lot of other problems. There are several good reasons to supplement with fish oil, and helping your brain is one of them.
This herb has had a lot of publicity as a memory aid. It seems to work by improving blood flow. Most studies have shown moderate effectiveness and it has a good safety profile. (6-7)
If you can’t develop a taste for curries (my recommendation), curcumin is available as a supplement.
Alpha-Lipoic Acid and Acetyl- L-Carnitine:
Alpha-lipoic acid is a powerful antioxidant. Acetyl-L-carnitine protects the mitochondria (the energy-producing “powerhouses” of the cells) from age-related damage. Together, they work to protect the brain. (8-10)
Phosphatidylserine has generated a lot of interest in the study of cognitive decline. That’s because it’s a precursor of the neurotransmitter, acetylcholine. Acetylcholine has been found to be reduced in Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Taking phosphatidylserine as a supplement improves acetylcholine levels and has shown benefits in both animal and human studies. (11-13)
Do you think you might be able to develop a taste for green tea? And would it be possible to add some blueberries to your diet? Small changes can have large benefits.
I’ve given you many suggestions to consider. As you can see, there’s a lot you can do to stay sharp as you age. Following these suggestions will do more than just help your brain. You’ll improve your overall levels of vitality while reducing your risk of disease.
(1) Solfrizzi et al. Neurobiol Aging. 2006 Nov;27(11):1694-702.
(2) Tze-Pin Ng et al. American Journal of Epidemiol. prepub source: doi:10.1093/aje/kwj267.
(3) Joseph JA, et al. Nutr Neurosci. 2003 Jun;6(3):153-62.
(4) American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Vol. 83, pp. 355-361) (green tea reference).
(5) Willis SL et al. JAMA 2006 Dec 20;296(23):2805-14.
(6) Kanowski S, Pharmacopsychiatry. 2003 Nov; 36(6):297-303
(7) Gertz et al. Curr. Pharm. Des. 2004;10(3):261-264.
(8) Liu J et al. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 2002 Feb 1999(4):2356-61.
(9) Lynch MA. Nutr. Neurosci. 2001;4(6):419-438.
(10) Packer L et al. Free Rad Biol Med. 1997;22:359-78.
(11) Cenacchi T et al. Aging 1993; 5:123-133.
(12) Crook T et al. Psychopharmacol Bull. 1992; 28:61-66.
(13) Funfgeld EW et al. Prog Clin Biol Res. 1989; 317:1235-1246.
[Ed. Note: Joseph F. McCaffrey, MD, FACS is a board-certified surgeon with extensive experience in alternative medicine, including certification as a HeartMath Trainer. His areas of expertise include mind-body interaction and cognitive restructuring. Dr. McCaffrey strives to help people attain their optimum level of vitality through attention to all aspects of wellness.]
“This article appears courtesy of Early to Rise’s Total Health Breakthroughs, offering alternative solutions for mind, body and soul. For a complimentary subscription,