By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
We’ve all known people who, no matter how long they lived, stayed as sharp as a tack until their dying day. I still remember the last time I talked with Dutch chemist Dr. Jacob Rinse about how he used nutritional supplements to treat his heart disease. He was over 90, but incredibly together. At the time, I remember thinking, “If I make it to 90, I want to be just like him!”
Then there’s the other side of the coin—the friends, family, and acquaintances whose minds fade long before they should.
Why brains age so differently is something the medical community is still figuring out. But one thing seems clear to me: we have more control over how the mind ages than we think.
Your Brain: A Master Computer Network
Protecting your memory and long-term brain health requires an approach similar to how you would protect your heart. The key is to avoid small, incremental amounts of damage that add up to big problems late in life.
The brain is essentially a giant computer network made up of 100 billion brain cells, or neurons. Each one is constantly processing information from inside and outside the body, and determining what should come next. They manage all of your biological functions and movements, as well as thoughts, emotions, learning, and memories—the whole nine yards.
The neurons are all connected to each other, and they share information via electrical signals that travel along pathways protected by a fatty substance called myelin.
When we’re young, we learn quickly and have good recall because our neurons are functioning at full capacity, and the connections between them are clear and solid.
As we age, though, this changes. Some of our neurons and connections become damaged or die, and those “computers” go offline. When enough damage accumulates, the signals become increasingly obstructed and you start to see some of the signs we associate with age-related dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Thoughts become jumbled, memory fades, and/or fine motor skills begin to deteriorate.
4 Reasons Why Our Brains Fail—And What You Can Do to Stop Them
There are obvious ways our brains can be damaged—falls, auto accidents, and sports, to name a few. But most people don’t realize that damage also occurs in subtle ways, on a daily basis. That’s where you really have an opportunity to help yourself.
Here are four of the leading theories about why we develop memory loss and cognitive impairment as our brains age, and my Sinatra Solution for each one.
1. Oxidative Free-Radical Damage
Just as they do in the arteries, free radicals can cause inflammation in the brain.
This theory holds that when free radicals come in contact with the fatty acids in and around neurons, the acids oxidize. This triggers an inflammatory response. If inflammation is chronic, its waste products eventually build up and overwhelm the brain cells, causing them to lose their connections with other cells and, eventually, die. Not surprisingly, inflammation has been connected with the progression of both Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.
My Sinatra Solution: Eat an anti-inflammatory diet and take nutritional supplements with anti-inflammatory benefits. This is a good example of “what’s good for the heart is also good for the brain.” My Pan-Asian Modified Mediterranean (PAMM) diet is full of free radical fighting antioxidants, and a prime component of it—olive oil—can actually help reduce the body’s natural inclination toward inflammation. The PAMM diet also contains very little sugar, which not only is inflammatory, but has been suggested as a potential driver of Alzheimer’s disease.
I also really like the supplement combination of turmeric and resveratrol. They work synergistically to help reduce damaging inflammation.
This really resonates with me, since the world we live in is becoming more and more toxic. We literally live in a sea of chemicals—and every day we absorb them through our food, water, air, and household environments. In small daily doses, they don’t seem like they’re much of a problem—but a lifetime of exposure can do serious damage to the brain. Pesticides, which have been linked with the development and progression of Parkinson’s disease, are a good example of this.
My Sinatra Solution: Eat organic food as much as possible, and reduce your exposure to the most dangerous environmental toxins. One of my favorite consumer watchdog groups, the Environmental Working Group, publishes an annual list of fruits and vegetables most likely to be contaminated with pesticide residues. It’s a great resource for knowing which produce puts your brain most at risk, and what to prioritize when buying organic. I suggest taking a look at it before you shop.
Pesticides aren’t the only toxins to look out for, though. It’s also important to watch out for chemicals and heavy metals in other products you use, like shampoos, deodorants, and cleaning solutions. Also, drink from glass bottles instead of plastic. Avoid exercising outdoors when air quality is poor or along busy, exhaust-filled streets. Finally, take a break from your electronic devices to reduce the amount of electropollution you absorb.
3. Chronic Stress
Stress can affect virtually any part of the body, including the brain. In fact, prolonged high levels of the stress hormone cortisol can actually cause the part of the brain associated with emotions, memory, and the autonomic nervous system to shrink. It also slows the production of new brain cells, which means the ones lost to shrinkage aren’t necessarily replaced.
Worse, the part of the brain that’s damaged by cortisol also happens to be the part that regulates how you respond to stress and how much cortisol you produce. So the longer you endure stress, the less capable your brain becomes of appropriately responding to it. Over the long haul, this feedback loop can have devastating effects.
My Sinatra Solution: Remember that no matter what your worries, most things are not worth dying for—or losing your mind. Connect with trusted friends and family—they may be able to help you get perspective on your life and find better ways to manage your stress. Especially work on lowering your cortisol level. One of the best ways to do this is through activities that help rebalance the autonomic nervous system, such as Earthing and alternate nostril breathing.
4. Nutrient Deficiencies
The brain relies on a steady stream of amino acids, electrolytes, fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals to make neurotransmitters, stabilize its electrical connections, maintain myelin, and strengthen cell walls. Since we naturally produce less of the necessary brain nutrients as we age—it becomes more and more important that we get them either through diet or nutritional supplements. If supplies fall short of need, neural connections can be lost, and brain function can falter.
My Sinatra Solution: Combine my anti-inflammatory diet with targeted supplements. One of the most important nutrients for maintaining your brain health is the omega-3 fatty acid DHA. The PAMM diet includes many DHA-rich foods, including wild salmon, DHA-fortified eggs, nuts, and seeds. High-quality fish oils are another good source of this vital nutrient.
Don’t Forget Exercise, Too
Here’s one more tip for helping your brain age the best way possible: Get up and get moving for a minimum of 30 minutes every day (if you haven’t exercised in awhile, aim for 15 minutes and work your way up). In addition to keeping the arteries to your brain healthy and clear, physical activity has been shown to enhance and protect cognitive function, as well.
Give your brain a daily workout, too. Puzzles and games are one approach, but reading, writing, learning a new skill, or simply going new places and experiencing new things can help build and maintain neuronal connections.
Most of all, stick with your resolve to make these changes, however small they seem. In the case of the brain, small changes can add up to big results.
- AlDakheel A, Kalia LV, and Lang AE. Pathogenesis-targeted, disease-modifying therapies in Parkinson disease. Neurotherapeutics. 2014 Jan;11(1):6–23.
- Heppner FL, Ransohoff RM, and Becher B. Immune attack: the role of inflammation in Alzheimer disease. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2015 Jun;16(6):358–72.
- Lupien SJ et al. Cortisol levels during human aging predict hippocampal atrophy and memory deficits. Nat Neurosci. 1998;1:69–73.
- Neuroinflammation Working Group (Akiyama H). Inflammation and Alzheimer’s disease. Neurobiol Aging. 2000 May-Jun;21(3):383–421.
- Simen AA et al. Cognitive dysfunction with aging and the role of inflammation. Ther Adv Chronic Dis. 2011 May;2(3):175–195.
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