By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
“Dr. Sinatra: How can I keep my brain and memory sharp as I get older?” That’s a question I’ve been asked countless times and you’ll be surprised at the number of options you have. Unfortunately, there is no magic pill, but I’ve got 20 effective strategies you can do to help slow down the process and protect your marbles.
I’ll share those “brain savers” in a minute but first here are some facts you should know.
As we get older our brain changes just like the rest of our body. Alas, the changes mean less efficiency.
Starting in our 60s or 70s, our brain mass may downsize a bit. Among the parts that shrink more than others is the frontal lobe containing the prefrontal cortex − the CEO of the brain, so to speak − and the hippocampus where new memories are formed.
The outer surface of the brain thins out somewhat due to a loss in synaptic connections, meaning the communication paths between brain cells. The white matter also ages, resulting in a slowdown of memory, attention, action, and problem solving. White matter is fatty tissue that acts as electrical insulation and channel through which messages pass between different areas of the nervous system’s grey matter. Aging brains also produce less neurotransmitters which carry messages between brain cells.
That’s the bad news. Now here’s what you can do about it.
20 “Brain Savers”
1. Keep your cool. Stress − in the form of emotional, mental, or physical tension − can physically reshape and shrink the brain and cause long-lasting harm. Stress can aggravate or lead to Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. Defuse your stress with meditation, prayer, yoga, tai chi, or the pursuit of some enjoyable hobby. It is worth remembering the words of Hans Selye, M.D., the world-famous doctor who first coined the term stress decades ago: “Every stress leaves an indelible scar, and the organism pays for its survival after a stressful situation by becoming a little older.”
2. Find ways to be happy and optimistic. You’ll live longer and your mind will benefit!
3. Keep your blood pressure under control. Stress reduction will help accomplish that. High blood pressure can choke off oxygen to the brain. Approximately 20 percent of the oxygen you breathe in goes to your brain. If you have high blood pressure, I suggest you reduce it. Additionally, recent research has shown that even a glass of beetroot juice and some green leafy vegetables can make a difference.
4. Exercise regularly. You don’t have to run marathons or become a gym rat: walk, dance, do tai chi. Just get moving doing whatever you enjoy. Physical activity increases circulation to the brain. It also produces a hormone called brain-derived neurotrophic factor that promotes preservation of existing neurons and the creation of new ones. The hormone is active in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, areas vital to learning, memory, and higher thinking. Exercise also promotes the neurotransmitters serotonin (a mood elevator) and dopamine (important for focus).
5. Flex your brain just as you would any muscle: learn new skills, do puzzles, play chess or card games. Heed the words of tennis icon Jimmy Connor who said, “use it or lose it.”
6. The standard American diet, high in processed carbohydrates and added sugars, is a brain buster. Processed carbohydrates mean sodas, typical packaged breakfast cereals, and white flour pasta, bread, cakes and cookies. These manufactured “foods” convert quickly into blood sugar and create excess insulin release, eventually triggering inflammation, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes. They are linked to Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Cutting down on such inferior food also helps keep your weight down. People with weight problems have a higher risk of developing dementia. When sugar combines with proteins in the blood they form so-called advanced glycation end products (AGEs), substances that can damage the highly sensitive inner lining of the arteries, whether they lead to your heart or your brain. A 2013 study from the University of Washington found that higher levels of blood sugar represent a risk factor for dementia. Additionally, according to a 2012 Mayo Clinic study, a dietary pattern with a relatively high intake of carbohydrates raises the risk of cognitive impairment or dementia in elderly persons, while a high intake of fat and protein lowers the risk.
7. Follow my PAM diet, a combination of the healthy Mediterranean and Asian diets. It is rich in fruits and vegetables, fish, and healthy fats. A Mediterranean diet, reinforced with extra-virgin olive oil and nuts, has been found to improve brain function in older adults.
8. Fruit and vegetables contribute to brain power. Your fruit choices should include antioxidant-rich berries. Blueberries, in particular, are high in antioxidants called anthocyanins that can actually enhance your brain cells’ ability to communicate with each other. The most beneficial vegetables are leafy greens like spinach, and the cruciferous varieties such as broccoli, cauliflower, and kale. Try to eat produce that is organic to minimize your intake of pesticides and insecticides.
9. The combination of antioxidant-rich spinach and free-range, organic eggs helps protect your memory. The healthy fat in egg yolk allows beneficial nutrients in the spinach to be fully absorbed by the body.
10. The brain needs fat. Eat healthy, anti-inflammatory fats from nuts, seeds, fish such as wild-caught salmon and sardines, and avocados on a daily basis. They protect and fortify brain function. Generously shower your vegetables and salads with extra virgin olive oil. Don’t be afraid of butter. Cook with coconut oil.
11. Heart healthy HDL cholesterol not only protects against heart disease and stroke, but can provide protection against dementia as well. The best way to raise your HDL level is to make vegetables and fruits the largest part of your diet. A daily handful of blanched almonds is an easy way to raise your HDL. Optimism in life is another way to raise HDL.
12. Nutritional supplements benefit your brain in many ways. Here’s a list of key supplements:
a. A high-quality multiple vitamin, mineral, and antioxidant formula. A good multi is the backbone of any effective nutritional program. The formula should contain more than the RDA of the major factors in the B complex family, vital for maintaining the integrity of the nervous system. You may also want to include extra B-12 (100 to 200 mcg), which becomes depleted in the elderly, along with 100-250 mg niacin (B-3).
b. Fish oil, 2-3 grams. The brain is high in fatty tissue, including docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an important constituent in fish oil that is an anti-inflammatory that has been found to protect neuronal function. Researchers have found that supplemental DHA improves memory and learning in individuals with age-related cognitive decline.
c. Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), an essential antioxidant and raw material to feed and protect cellular energy production. Research shows it can help protect against dementia. Take 100–200 milligrams per day.
d. Acetyl-L-carnitine (ALC), a brain-boosting form of the amino acid carnitine. ALC is an antioxidant, membrane stabilizer and enhancer of cellular energy. It can also slow down mental decline. Take 125–250 milligrams per day.
e. Alpha lipoic acid (ALA), another potent antioxidant. Take 100–200 milligrams daily.
f. Phosphatidylserine is a nutrient involved in cellular membranes that helps increase memory and cognitive function. Take 100-200 milligrams daily. Phosphatidylcholine, a related nutrient, promotes neurotransmitter and nerve impulse activity. Take 75–150 mg per day.
13. A glass of wine five or six times a week has been found to benefit brain function and slow down mental decline. Drinking more is harmful because alcohol damages the liver and brain.
14. Add garlic to your diet. Garlic packs natural chemical compounds that many laboratory studies have shown to have neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory benefits.
15. The curry spice turmeric and its pigment extract curcumin rank among the most potent food-derived anti-inflammatory agents, and may help counteract plaque in the memory circuits of the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. One Japanese study provides a promising glimpse at how turmeric may be helpful for patients.
16. Be wary of cholesterol lowering statin drugs. I strongly believe that overzealous prescribing of statins represents a genuine threat to brain function and here’s why: Life can’t go on without cholesterol, a basic raw material made by your liver, brain, and almost every cell in your body. The brain is particularly rich in cholesterol and accounts for about a quarter of all the cholesterol we have. The fatty myelin sheath that coats every nerve cell and fiber is about one-fifth cholesterol. Neuronal communication depends on cholesterol. It is not surprising that a connection has been found between naturally occurring cholesterol and mental function. Lower levels are linked to poorer cognitive performance. Lowering cholesterol to abnormally and unnaturally low levels contributes to Alzheimer’s, particularly in people over 75. I don’t recommend it for prevention and only for middle-aged men with a history of heart disease. For more details, please read my book, The Great Cholesterol Myth.
17. Grounding (also known as Earthing) is a powerful, simple, and natural anti-aging strategy. All you need to do is walk/sit barefoot outdoors for a half-hour or so daily or use conductive Earthing bed sheets, mats, or bands indoors, activities that give you contact to the Earth’s gentle, negative charge. Research is showing that such contact can reduce inflammation and stress, improves blood flow, and promotes better sleep.
18. We live in an increasingly toxic environment. Along with all the pesticides, insecticides, and chemical pollutants, we also are immersed in proliferating wireless technologies that create unseen chaotic electrical frequencies. The combination of all these factors may be harmful to young and old alike.
19. Healing music. Play the music of your youth. It will foster memories and social interactions, and alleviate stress.
20. If you have a family history of Alzheimer’s or dementia, get tested for a genetic predisposition. Check with your doctor. Specifically, the test will look for the APO E4 allele. APO refers to a blood protein involved in fat metabolism. Alleles are combinations of genes. The presence of two alleles identified as E4 in these proteins suggests you need to be extra mindful about protecting yourself, not just for the risk of dementia but also heart disease.
Memory Loss vs. Alzheimer’s
Doctors can’t really pinpoint the precise cause of mental decline in aging patients. There are many possibilities and combinations: Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia from impaired blood flow to parts of the brain, long-standing hypertension, and mini-strokes, too much alcohol during a lifetime, lack of exercise, poor diet, and perhaps even the unseen chaos of electromagnetic fields.
Commonly, people use the term Alzheimer’s but that may not be the true basis of mental decline. Alzheimer’s destroys brain cells, causing problems with memory, thinking, and behavior severe enough to affect work, lifelong hobbies, or social life. It is the most common of dementia conditions, gets worse over time, and can be fatal (it is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States).
There is much that medical science does not know. For that reason, the right diagnosis is often elusive. And many times there are just lesser things going on that impact memory and affect your ability to quickly remember what you did with your keys or glasses or remember peoples’ names. There is a difference, of course, between a natural slowing down in the speed of recall and the dramatic drop in mental function that occurs with a distinct disorder like Alzheimer’s.
Anti-aging medicine is about protecting the body, including the brain, as we get older. It is not so much about living beyond 100, and especially if that means you are living in a nursing home or in a minimally functional state. It is about preserving the physical and mental faculties that you have and slowing down the pace of decline that accompanies time – in other words, to have a better and longer quality of life.
I hope this article provides some specifics on how to make that happen.
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