How To Keep Your Brain Young
How To Keep Your Brain Young
Are forgetfulness and “senior moments” inevitable parts of aging? Many medical professionals (including the doctor in CNN’s news brief above) say it’s perfectly normal to start having memory lapses by the time you reach middle age.
I disagree. In fact, if you notice memory lapses, you may want to seriously consider making some immediate lifestyle changes to help reverse, or at least minimize further damage that might lead to dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
Fortunately, your brain is actually quite resilient, and has the capacity to regenerate and repair itself, which is given the medical term neuroplasticity. This is new information and not what I was taught in medical school in the late ’80s.
You’ll find that many of the lifestyle changes that will help prevent diabetes will also improve your brain function. There’s good reason for this, as sugar can have an adverse effect on your memory even if you’re otherwise healthy.
Increasing amounts of research also attest to the power of exercise to keep your mind sharp. Other factors that can have a significant impact on your brain function include lifestyle factors such as stress and poor sleeping habits.
The One Part of Your Brain That Appears to Be Protected Against Aging
Interestingly, recent research1 shows that certain cognitive systems located in the right cerebral hemisphere, such as spatial attention, mysteriously appear to be protected from the ravages of aging.
“Our studies have found that older and younger adults perform in a similar way on a range of visual and non-visual tasks that measure spatial attention,” said lead author Dr. Joanna Brooks.
“Both younger (aged 18 to 38 years) and older (55 to 95 years) adults had the same responses for spatial attention tasks involving touch, sight or sound.”
The question is why? Understanding why certain brain regions are more protected than others may eventually lead to greater insight into brain degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. That said, there’s no need to wait for a medical miracle. You already have the power to improve your memory and other brain functions.
The Influence of Stress
When it comes to brain function, stress is an important factor that can have a direct effect. For example, one recent animal study found that higher levels of stress hormones can speed up short-term memory loss in older adults.2
In a nutshell, the stress hormone cortisol has a corrosive effect that, over time, wears down the synapses responsible for memory storage and processing. Previous research3 has also linked chronic stress with working memory impairment.
Other recent research suggests that stress may even speed up the onset of more serious dementia known as Alzheimer’s disease, which currently afflicts about 5.4 million Americans, including one in eight people aged 65 and over.4
While it’s virtually impossible to eliminate all stress from your life, there are tools you can use that will allow your body to effectively compensate for the bioelectrical short-circuiting that takes place when you’re stressed or anxious.
My favorite tool for stress management is the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT). It’s an energy psychology tool that can help reprogram your body’s reactions to everyday stress, thereby reducing your chances of developing adverse health effects.
In the following video, Julie Schiffman demonstrates how to tap for anxiety and overwhelm first thing in the morning, to help you start your day in a more relaxed state.
Poor Sleep Can Shrink Your Brain and Cause Neuron Degeneration
Stress and poor sleep often go hand-in-hand, and like stress, lack of restorative sleep can also wreak havoc on your brain function. Moreover, it can actually lead to loss of brain volume, and may accelerate onset of Alzheimer’s disease.5
Part of the reason for this is related to the fact that your brain removes toxic waste during sleep.6, 7, 8, 9 Sleep is also necessary for maintaining metabolic homeostasis in your brain10, 11, 12 —without sufficient sleep, your neurons will actually begin to degenerate.
Unfortunately, research shows that you cannot prevent this damage by trying to catch up on sleep during the weekends. So it’s critical to maintain a regular sleep schedule where you get enough sleep on a nightly basis.
Recent research published in the journal Neurology13, 14, 15 also shows that sleep problems like insomnia can have a distinct impact on your brain volume over time, causing it to shrink—and shrink more rapidly, compared to those who sleep well. This effect is particularly significant in those over 60.
The Importance of Exercise
There are compelling links between exercise and brain health. Most recently, researchers at the University of Minnesota concluded16, 17, 18 that people who have greater cardiorespiratory fitness in their teens and 20s score better on cognitive tests in their mid-40s and 50s.
Those who were fitter in their early adulthood also scored better on tests designed to assess reaction speed and the mental agility needed to answer trick questions.
Obesity is associated with cognitive decline,19 in part because it increases levels of inflammatory chemicals known as cytokines in your body, which are strongly damaging to brain function.
According to a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience,20 it appears your body may react to excess fat as an invader, causing levels of cytokines to stay elevated, thereby causing chronic inflammation.
Exercise is, of course, a key ingredient for weight loss. But it’s also a simple yet remarkably potent way to lower your levels of inflammatory cytokines, which will help protect your brain function.
And, while lack of sleep can lead to brain shrinkage, those who exercise the most tend to have the least amount of brain shrinkage over time. Not only that, but exercise actually causes your brain to grow in size. In one study, adults aged 60 to 80 who walked for 30 to 45 minutes, three days per week for one year, showed a two percent increase in the volume of their hippocampus21—a brain region associated with memory. This is one of the reasons it might be a good idea to get a fitness tracker and making sure you walk about 10,000 steps a day.
Sugar Damages Brain Function
It’s impossible to discuss brain health without addressing the hazards of a high-sugar, low-fat processed food diet. In fact, a growing body of research suggests there’s a powerful connection between your diet and your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, via similar pathways that cause type 2 diabetes. According to some experts, such as Dr. Ron Rosedale, Alzheimer’s and other brain disorders may in large part be caused by the constant burning of glucose for fuel by your brain.
This may sound surprising, but contrary to popular belief, your brain does not require glucose. It actually functions better burning ketones, which your body makes in response to digesting healthy fats. Research22 has also shown that type 2 diabetics lose more brain volume with age than expected—particularly gray matter. But recent research23 shows that sugar and other carbohydrates can disrupt your brain function even if you’re not diabetic or have any signs of dementia.
After evaluating more than 140 healthy, non-diabetic, non-demented seniors, the researchers concluded that higher glucose levels were associated with worse memory, a smaller hippocampus, and compromised hippocampal structure. According to study co-author Agnes Flöel, the results “provide further evidence that glucose might directly contribute to hippocampal atrophy.”
So these findings suggest that even if you’re not diabetic or insulin resistant (and about 80 percent of Americans fall into the latter category), sugar consumption can still disrupt your memory. Additionally, when your liver is busy processing fructose, it severely hampers its ability to make cholesterol, an essential building block of your brain that is crucial for optimal brain function. Indeed, mounting evidence supports the notion that significantly reducing fructose consumption is a very important step for preventing Alzheimer’s disease.
Eat Your Veggies to Protect Against Mental Decline
Nutritional intervention using vegetables may play an important role in preventing and/or reversing cognitive decline. The reason for this is because they are key sources of a wide variety of antioxidants—nutrients that disarm harmful molecules called free radicals. Free radical oxidative damage is believed to play a leading role in age-related changes in your health, and your brain may be particularly vulnerable to such damage.
For optimal benefits, it is prudent to eat whole, ideally organic foods. Foods containing a variety of phytochemicals and cofactors offer greater protection and health benefits than individual nutrients in high doses. Juicing is a great way to boost your vegetable intake, and incorporate veggies that you may otherwise not eat. If you want your vegetables to have the highest nutritional density, take a look at my list of powerhouse fruits and vegetables. Avoid wilted vegetables, as they’ve lost much of their nutritional value. It is wise to eat a variety of dark green leafy vegetables, plus other vividly colored veggies (purple, red, yellow, and orange) to make sure you receive a broad range of those powerful plant nutrients.
Eating foods that are in season, especially in your local area, will help ensure they are fresh and at peak nutritional value, as well as typically being less expensive. Here is a graphic for determining what veggies may be in season:
Two Potent Brain Foods: Coconut Oil and Omega-3 Fat
The low-fat craze (aimed at preventing heart disease) is another contributing factor to deteriorating brain function. Not only does avoiding healthy fat promote heart disease, it also promotes brain diseases like Alzheimer’s. Your body can convert two types of fuel into energy: carbs/sugar or fat. Ketones are what your body produces when it converts fat (as opposed to glucose) into energy, and a primary source of ketone bodies are the medium-chain triglycerides (MCT) found coconut oil. While your brain can run quite well on glucose, evidence suggests that ketone bodies may actually help restore and renew neurons and nerve function in your brain, even after damage has set in. Glucose will not do this.
Interestingly, the mechanism of this MCT-ketone metabolism appears to be that your body treats MCTs as a carbohydrate and not a fat. This allows the ketone energy to hit your bloodstream without the normal insulin spike associated with carbohydrates. So in effect, coconut oil is a fat that acts like a carbohydrate when it comes to brain fuel. Therapeutic levels of MCTs have been studied at 20 grams per day, which translates into just over two tablespoons of coconut oil. It’s best taken with food, to avoid upsetting your stomach.
You can also increase ketone production by either restricting carbohydrates and/or intermittent fasting. Personally, I believe all three of these strategies are best applied together, as you need to replace carbs with high-quality fat for optimal health, and intermittent fasting will help your body shift to burning fat as its primary fuel. I believe it’s one of the most effective ways to shed excess weight and normalize your insulin and leptin sensitivity.
Animal-based omega-3 fat is another crucial fat for brain health. One 2013 study24 found that older women with the highest levels of omega-3 fats had less brain atrophy as they aged compared to those with the lowest levels, which could translate into maintaining better brain function for an extra year or two. Previous research25 has also confirmed the beneficial effect of omega-3 fat on brain function in youngsters, concluding that DHA intake is a “robust modulator of functional cortical activity.”
The Importance of Keeping Your Mind Challenged
Besides diet, exercise, addressing stress, and making sure you’re getting sufficient restorative sleep, mental stimulation is also an important lifestyle factor for keeping your memory sharp. The process of learning something new, such as learning to play an instrument or a new language for example, is particularly beneficial. CNN Health recently listed “The 10 Best Apps to Train Your Brain,”26 some of which are aimed at reducing stress and promoting mental health, while others are focused on increasing cognitive function. These apps include:
|Lumosity, which uses games to train your memory, attention, problem solving, processing speed, and flexibility of thinking||Brain Trainer Special employs games involving letter, number, and sequencing memorization|
|CogniFit Brain Fitness also uses games designed to improve cognitive abilities such as memory and concentration||Brain Fitness Pro uses a variety of memory training exercises to increase focus, memory, and problem-solving skills|
|Personal Zen is a game designed to reduce anxiety by learning to focus more on that which is positive, rather than dwelling on the negative||Fit Brains Trainer offers more than 360 games and puzzles to help improve your mental agility|
|Happify is another app that helps you develop a more positive attitude, which can make you more resilient in the face of stress||Eidetic employs a spaced repetition technique to help you memorize just about anything. It will also notify you when it’s time to test yourself, which helps ensure you’re retaining the information|
|Positive Activity Jackpot. Originally developed for returning military service members, this app uses GPS to locate fun activities for those struggling with depression. If you’re feeling indecisive, you can let the app decide which activity to do, using the “jackpot lever.” According to CNN: “PAJ is based on a form of behavioral therapy called pleasant event scheduling, which encourages a daily schedule of enjoyable activities to improve moods and overcome despondent thoughts.”||ReliefLink was originally developed for suicide prevention, but can also be used to track your moods. According to CNN: “It also includes unique coping methods, such as voice-recorded mindfulness and relaxation exercises, or relaxing music. The map locator pinpoints nearby therapists, support groups and mental health treatment facilities, too, in case you ever need to talk to a professional.”|
Guidelines for Maintaining Healthy Brain Function with Age
I do not believe failing memory, brain atrophy, and eventual dementia are par the course for aging. As explained by neurologist Dr. David Perlmutter, dementia (including Alzheimer’s disease) is the result of lifestyle choices that are well within your control. Two of the main culprits are excessive sugar and gluten consumption. But there are many other contributing factors as well. Below I will summarize what I’ve covered in this article, and mention a number of other prevention strategies that I did not yet cover.
|Avoid sugar and refined fructose. Ideally, you’ll want to keep your total sugar and fructose below 25 grams per day, or as low as 15 grams per day if you have insulin resistance or any related disorders. In one animal study, a junk food diet high in sugar resulted in impaired memory after just one week! As a general rule, you’ll want to keep your fasting insulin levels below 3, and this is indirectly related to fructose, as it will clearly lead to insulin resistance. However, other sugars (sucrose is 50 percent fructose by weight), grains, and lack of exercise are also important factors. Lowering insulin will also help lower leptin levels which is another factor for Alzheimer’s.|
|Avoid gluten and casein (primarily wheat and pasteurized dairy, but not dairy fat, such as butter). Research shows that your blood-brain barrier, the barrier that keeps things out of your brain where they don’t belong, is negatively affected by gluten. Gluten also makes your gut more permeable, which allows proteins to get into your bloodstream, where they don’t belong. That then sensitizes your immune system and promotes inflammation and autoimmunity, both of which play a role in the development of Alzheimer’s. Dr. Perlmutter’s book, Grain Brain, also provides powerful arguments for eliminating grains from your diet, particularly if you want to protect the health of your brain.|
|Aim for an organic diet to avoid agricultural chemicals like glyphosate. Glyphosate, which is one of the most widely used agricultural chemicals today, causes extreme disruption of your gut microbes’ function and lifecycle; preferentially affecting beneficial bacteria while promoting the growth of pathogens in your intestines. It also inhibits enzymes that catalyze the oxidation of organic substances, which appears to be an overlooked component of glyphosate’s toxicity to mammals. By limiting the ability of these enzymes to detoxify foreign chemical compounds, glyphosate enhances the damaging effects of those chemicals and environmental toxins you may be exposed to. Glyphosate contamination is most prevalent in genetically engineered grains, which are now pervasive in most processed foods sold in the US.|
|Eat plenty of folate-rich vegetables. Avoid supplements like folic acid, which is the inferior synthetic version of folate. Green leafy vegetables like spinach and Swiss chard are also excellent sources of magnesium, and preliminary research strongly suggests that increased levels of magnesium in the brain can decrease symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Juicing your vegetables is an excellent option to ensure you’re getting enough of them in your diet.|
|Increase consumption of all healthful fats, including animal-based omega-3. Beneficial fats that your brain needs for optimal function include organic butter from raw milk, clarified butter called ghee, organic, grass-fed raw butter, olives, organic virgin olive oil and coconut oil, nuts like pecans and macadamia, free-range eggs, wild Alaskan salmon, and avocado. Also make sure you’re getting enough animal-based omega-3 fats, such as krill oil. (I recommend avoiding most fish because, although fish is naturally high in omega-3, most fish are now severely contaminated with mercury.)|
|Optimize your gut flora by regularly eating fermented foods or taking a high-potency and high-quality probiotic supplement.|
|Beneficial Lifestyle Strategies|
|Exercise regularly. You may review the Peak Fitness Technique for my specific recommendations.|
|Get regular sleep. If you’re having trouble sleeping, see my previous article, “33 Tips for a Good Night’s Sleep.”|
|Address your stress. My favorite tool for stress management is the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT).|
|Optimize your vitamin D levels with safe sun exposure. Strong links between low levels of vitamin D in Alzheimer’s patients and poor outcomes on cognitive tests have been revealed. Researchers believe that optimal vitamin D levels may enhance the amount of important chemicals in your brain and protect brain cells by increasing the effectiveness of the glial cells in nursing damaged neurons back to health. Sufficient vitamin D is also imperative for proper functioning of your immune system to combat inflammation that is also associated with Alzheimer’s.|
|Avoid and eliminate mercury from your body. Dental amalgam fillings, which are 50 percent mercury by weight, are one of the major sources of heavy metal toxicity, however you should be healthy prior to having them removed. Once you have adjusted to following the diet described in my optimized nutrition plan, you can follow the mercury detox protocol and then find a biological dentist to have your amalgams removed.|
|Avoid aluminum, such as antiperspirants, non-stick cookware, vaccine adjuvants, etc.|
|Avoid anticholinergics and statin drugs. Drugs that block acetylcholine, a nervous system neurotransmitter, have been shown to increase your risk of dementia. These drugs include certain nighttime pain relievers, antihistamines, sleep aids, certain antidepressants, medications to control incontinence, and certain narcotic pain relievers. Statin drugs are particularly problematic because they suppress the synthesis of cholesterol, deplete your brain of coenzyme Q10 and neurotransmitter precursors, and prevent adequate delivery of essential fatty acids and fat-soluble antioxidants to your brain by inhibiting the production of the indispensable carrier biomolecule known as low-density lipoprotein.|
Challenge your mind daily.
|Ginkgo biloba: A 1997 study from JAMA showed clear evidence that Ginkgo improves cognitive performance and social functioning for those suffering from dementia. Another 2006 study found Ginkgo as effective as the dementia drug Aricept (donepezil) for treating mild to moderate Alzheimer’s type dementia. A 2010 meta-analysis also found Ginkgo biloba to be effective for a variety of types of dementia.|
|Alpha lipoic acid (ALA): ALA has been shown to help stabilize cognitive functions among Alzheimer’s patients and may slow the progression of the disease.|
|Vitamin B12: A small Finnish study found that people who consume foods rich in B12 may reduce their risk of Alzheimer’s in their later years. For each unit increase in the marker of vitamin B12, the risk of developing Alzheimer’s was reduced by two percent. Sublingual methylcobalamin may be your best bet here. Large doses of B vitamins can halve the rate of brain shrinkage in elderly people with memory problems. It may slow their progression toward dementia. Another two-year clinical trial assessing the effect of B vitamins on mild cognitive impairment found that high doses of B vitamins successfully limited brain shrinkage.|
15-Minute At-Home Alzheimer’s Test
There’s no doubt that Alzheimer’s disease is fast becoming a concern on many people’s minds. One quick and pain-free way to assess your risk is to take the Self-Administered Gerocognitive Examination (SAGE) test. It’s a 15-minute at-home test developed by Douglas Scharre, M.D., of the Division of Cognitive Neurology at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center.30, 31 You can download the SAGE test from the University’s website.32 According to Dr. Scharre, this simple test correlates very well to more comprehensive cognitive tests, and is an excellent way to get an early assessment of your cognitive function. If taken at intervals over time, it can also serve as an early warning, if your scores begin to decline.