This week is World Alzheimer’s Day, so we’re shining the spotlight on brain health.
The theme of this year’s World Alzheimer’s Day is it’s “never too early, never too late.” This is a sentiment we’re always keen to share with our readers. While there’s so much worry and fear around dementia, on the flip side, there are many things people can do to reduce their risk and even help improve declining brain function.
While Alzheimer’s Disease is generally diagnosed when people reach their 70s and 80s, brain deterioration usually starts decades earlier. During these early stages, a person can carry on functioning normally despite cognitive changes. But, as things worsen, the brain will eventually no longer be able to compensate for the increase in neuronal damage and signs of poor cognition will start to show. This means interventions to optimise brain health in people during their 30s, 40s, and 50s could be a crucial part of halting the Alzheimer’s epidemic.
Know the risks
A paper published in the Lancet in 2020 highlighted 12 potentially modifiable risk factors for dementia. These were poor education, hypertension, hearing impairment, smoking, obesity, depression, physical inactivity, diabetes, low social contact, excessive alcohol consumption, traumatic brain injury and air pollution. Astonishingly, these modifiable factors account for around 40% of worldwide dementias. If these risks were addressed, all those cases of dementia could theoretically be prevented or delayed.
Smokers should definitely be thinking about quitting. Alcohol consumption is something to be mindful of too. It is well documented that excessive drinking is harmful to health, and this includes the brain. We are also hearing more and more about the harmful effects of pollution. If you feel your home is affected, consider buying air purifiers, house plants, and planting trees and bushes in the garden.
A lack of physical activity can also have an impact on brain health. Studies show exercise improves cognitive performance and memory. In older adults especially, physical activity has been shown to increase the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory, learning and emotion. Studies show regular exercise can even improve cognitive function in people who already have memory problems.
Keeping the brain active is absolutely crucial. Stay stimulated with activities like reading, crosswords, sudoku, and learning an instrument or another language. Stay connected with friends, groups and societies. Frequent engagement with other people helps strengthen neural pathways and slow decline.
Nourish your brain
Over and over again, we are told you are what you eat. It certainly seems diet can be a huge factor in either contributing to or preventing disease. Epidemiological studies show that Mediterranean and DASH diets are protective against chronic illnesses such as heart disease and high blood pressure. They are also associated with a lower risk of Alzheimer’s Disease. A new diet, the Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) diet, combines elements from the DASH and Mediterranean diets, which researchers believe are the most important to help improve brain function and reduce dementia risk. The emphasis is on natural plant-based foods, with limited animal and high saturated fat. It specifies the consumption of whole grains, nuts, berries and green leafy vegetables, with two vegetable servings per day and one fish meal per week. A study with almost 1,000 participants has shown The MIND diet lowered the risk of Alzheimer’s by as much as 53 per cent for those who adhered to it rigorously and by about 35 per cent in those who followed it moderately well.
Other studies have found a correlation between diets high in refined, processed carbohydrates and worsening symptoms of cognitive decline. A longitudinal study in China involving more than 72,000 participants aged 55 plus found consuming a diet made up of mainly processed foods was associated with a higher risk of dementia. Sugary processed foods can impair the body’s regulation of insulin, and Type 2 diabetes has been connected to an increased risk of dementia. They can also promote inflammation and oxidative stress, which are two key contributors to cognitive decline.
Eat the rainbow
Nourish the brain by piling your plate with colourful veggies and fruit. Data from the Chinese survey identified fruit, garlic, legumes, nuts, and vegetables as foods linked to a lower incidence of cognitive impairment. They concluded a high-quality plant-based diet can potentially prevent or delay cognitive decline. Vegetables and fruit also contain compounds known as polyphenols, which studies show have great potential as neuroprotectors. In particular, curcumin, derived from the Indian spice turmeric, resveratrol found in grapes, blueberries, raspberries, red wine and dark chocolate, and catechins in green tea. They have powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties and may help delay the degradation of brain cells.
Super healthy fats
Omega-3 fatty acids found in oily fish, nuts and seeds are critical for cognitive function. Don’t forget the brain is actually 60% fat. Brain cells need omega-3 in their membranes to help them communicate with other cells. Multiple studies show that reduced levels of omega-3 are associated with an increased risk of cognitive decline. Including plenty of these fats in the diet or supplementing appears to protect against dementia.
It’s never too late
In 2015, leading American neurologist Professor Dale Bredesen published a ground-breaking paper describing Alzheimer’s Disease as a metabolic disorder which makes the brain sick, at least in the early stages, and claimed that nutrition and lifestyle could mend it. He identified multiple underlying factors that need addressing, including diet changes, nutritional supplements, brain stimulation, exercise, sleep optimisation and specific pharmaceuticals. He trialled a “novel therapeutic programme,” focusing almost exclusively on diet and lifestyle, and participants noticed changes in just three to six months.
The following year, Finnish scientists produced the results of a two-year study, further supporting the idea that nutrition, exercise and mental stimulation are key for cognitive health. There were 1,260 participants aged 60-77. Half followed the plan, encouraging a high consumption of fruit and vegetables, low sugar, at least two portions of fish per week or fish oil supplements. Plus, exercise to improve strength, balance and aerobic fitness, with brain training and social activities. Those in the intervention group experienced improved or maintained cognitive function 25-150% better than the control group.
So, as you can see, it really is “never too early or late” to take action!
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