Dementia has been called the “Mother of all Boomer Fears”. People seem to be more afraid of dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases than they are of any other terminal illness. What we used to call ‘being senile’ now has various disease terms, diagnostic tests and ways in which it alters both the quality of one’s life and one’s life expectancy. There are approximately 5.7 million people in the United States living with dementia and Alzheimer’s accounts for about 60-70% of those cases and vascular dementia accounting for the remainder. These numbers are expected to grow as life expectancy increases with a projection of 13.9 million people over the age of 65 with Alzheimer’s or other dementia diseases expected by the year 2060.
Our brains are a complex organ. Weighing in at about 3 pounds it processes about 70,000 thoughts every day and it works 24/7. We like to think of it as the Master Controller of our bodies because without our brain we would have no self or awareness of what is going on in our reality. It is indeed complex, being made up of over 100 billion nerve cells that serve to communicate with our bodies at more than 500 trillion points that travel at more than 300 miles per hour. These interconnected nerve cells form the foundations of our memories, our thoughts, feelings and emotions and the patterns they form become a way of ‘coding’ for humans that create our individuality, our skill sets, our self-awareness and even our hopes and dreams. Some of the main functions include its role in sensory processing, control of our respiration, heart and nervous systems not only in the physical sense but the neurochemical processes form the encoding of our emotional responses- how and who we love, what we hope and pray for, which foods we like, pleasure, pain, and more.
It’s easy to see why our brains are protected with both the armor of the skull on the outside and the blood-brain barrier on the inside. This is a very precious organ of ours. The energy demands of the brain surpass all other organs or physical structures in your body. Blood flow to the brain is essential for both the nutrient supplies as well as a steady supply of glucose and oxygen- the brain consumes a whopping 20 % of our energy (think calories) and oxygen. About ⅔ of that energy goes to the complex neural processing and about ⅓ of the energy is used for ‘maintenance’- the cleaning up of those important brain cells. It is not possible for the brain to store either oxygen or glucose so without a steady supply it cannot survive. Just 10 minutes of deprivation of either can cause the brain to begin to die. With this in mind, it is easy to understand that what you eat and whether or not you exercise can play a large role in the health of your brain. If you have heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes you are a greater risk for developing Alzheimer’s and dementia. Blood flow is crucial for your brain to work and of these chronic conditions contribute to decreased blood flow and circulatory issues. It makes sense that the lifestyle changes that help with chronic conditions will also help support your brain health.
Healthy Eating for a Healthy Brain: Not surprisingly, the same foods that you want to eat for heart health are the same foods that help with brain health. When you protect and preserve the health of your heart and blood vessels and circulatory system, you protect your brain. The same adages apply for both: Eat fatty fish 2-3 times per week, avoid red meat, cut out all refined sugars and grains and pre-packaged and any and all processed foods, eat a primarily plant based diet rich in fruits and vegetables ( 5+ servings per day), eat nuts and seeds and healthy fats like olive oil, avocados and limit saturated fats and refined processed oils and trans fats.
Here are a few foods that have been researched for their positive effects on brain health:
- Fish and Walnuts: Fatty fish and Walnuts provide those important Omega 3 fatty acids. This is an unsaturated form of fat (aka”Healthy Fat”). These Omega 3 Fatty Acids help to build those billions of nerve cells in your brain – keeping you “wired and fired” for learning, memory, performance and cognitive and executive function in reaction time and decision making. Our precious brains are made up of 60% fat and it needs to be replenished and nourished. Healthy unsaturated fats have been shown to be linked to lower the levels of a certain protein called beta-amyloid in the blood which is tied to the damaging clumps of plaque in the brain of those with Alzheimer’s disease. Choose wild salmon, herring, trout, sardines and tuna as well as plant sources of omega 3 fatty acids like flaxseeds and walnuts.
- Green Vegetables: All those deep leafy greens do a world of wonders for brain health. Kale, spinach, and, especially broccoli. All and any vegetable and plant based foods help with slowing cognitive decline because of their anti-inflammatory, antioxidant rich properties but these leafy greens are loaded with brain boosting nutrients like folate, beta carotene, lutein and vitamin K.
- Berries: Those brilliant blues and deep pigments flavonoids) in berries also help with brain health. The flavonoids in blueberries have been shown to improve memory function and communication within nerve cells delaying aging within the brain. Let’s not forget the blood pressure and positive effects on blood vessel attributes of blueberries – a study published in Feb 2019 in the Journal of gerontology found that eating 200 grams (about a cup) of blueberries every day for a month improves blood vessel function and lowers systolic blood pressure.
- Coffee: Coffee may get a bad rap sometimes, but it is primarily the creamers and sugars that are dumped into it that cause the problems. Coffee has both antioxidants and caffeine and both have positive effects on brain health. The caffeine in coffee not only helps with mental function and alertness, it has been shown to be beneficial to solidifying new memories in the brain. Coffee drinking is linked to a lower incidence of neurological diseases and better mental function.
- Dark Chocolate: Choose a dark chocolate with at least 70% cacao. Cacao is a powerful antioxidant that significantly reduces oxidative stress and helps to grow neurons and certain blood vessels in the brain that are involved in learning and memory and helps with neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change and be resourceful in its connection processes which means it runs more efficiently; think of it as your brain’s ability to “de-frag” itself.
Fit Body for a Healthy Brain:
Exercise is critical for disease prevention and a healthy lifestyle. Since the brain requires 20% of the oxygen you consume and uses your bloodstream and blood vessels to get its delivery of this vital life source it’s not a mystery how exercise can be beneficial to brain health. Multitudes of studies support this fact, even in those people with genetic mutations for early onset of Alzheimer’s have been shown to stave off the onset of the disease by 15 years with exercise.
What form of exercise should you do for brain health? The short answer is- any kind helps. Exercise improves brain health and neuroplasticity. A routine that offers a wide variety of focus- cardio/aerobic, flexibility, strength and balance are all key factors in improving and maintaining good cognitive function.
Here are The American Heart Association recommendations for exercise:
- Get at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 mutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity, or a combination of both, preferably spread throughout the week.
- Add moderate- to high-intensity muscle-strengthening activity (such as resistance or weights) on at least 2 days per week.
- Spend less time sitting. Even light-intensity activity can offset some of the risks of being sedentary.
- Gain even more benefits by being active at least 300 minutes (5 hours) per week.
- Increase amount and intensity gradually over time
Cardio/Aerobic: Running, biking, swimming help to preserve existing brain cells and help to foster the growth of new ones. Studies indicate that long term moderate physical activity increases the volume of the hippocampus; the part of the brain that is involved in forming long term memories and is the first area to get damaged in Alzheimer’s disease.
Strength Training: Your bones and muscles need to be strong and resistance training helps. Strength training is shown to boost mood and brain power, enhance concentration and helps to sharpen those decision making skills.
Flexibility: One well researched form of exercise has been found to be a stand-out in cognitive function- Tai Chi. Research published in the Journal of Neuroimaging indicates that Tai Chi improves brain health and speed muscle recovery and improves balance, strength, flexibility and reduces stress.
Other lifestyle components of brain health include getting enough sleep (at least 6-8 hours every night), managing stress (stress interferes with learning, memory and cognitive and executive function), maintaining a good social network of friends, boost your mental fitness with new activities and learning challenges and always seek medical attention for any problems.
Working with your Rolling Strong Wellness coach can help you reach your goals in any of these lifestyle changes. Small steps matter. What is your small step in better brain health that you can take today.
By: Cindy Luisi, WHE, WHC, CCP, CDL Wellness Coach