We all have those moments — a forgotten appointment, a name we can’t recall, a word that’s on the tip of our tongue. For the most part, these incidents aren’t worrisome. However, as we age, they seem to increase in significance. We wonder if we’re losing our edge.
With Alzheimer’s disease and dementia constantly in the news, we are subject to a climate of fear that plays on our worst anxieties of losing our cognitive capacities. Luckily, there are a number of steps you can take to preserve your mental sharpness. Like any other organ, the brain responds to input. Not just mental and emotional input, but diet and exercise as well. Many of the strategies you can adopt to maintain overall health also support the brain. Yes, you can keep your mental acuity, and it only takes a few simple steps.
Fight the biological burglars
One of the brain’s biggest enemies is oxidative stress from excess free radicals which are generated by toxins, illness, stress and normal metabolic processes, among other factors. Like a lunchroom bully, free radicals (atoms or molecules that are short one electron) take what they need from other atoms. As levels of free radicals increase, one burglary leads to another, creating a cascade of inflammatory chain reactions that can damage cells, down to their DNA.
Antioxidant foods, herbs and supplements can help block this cycle, which is why we hear so much about these super-nutrients – and there are a wide variety to choose from. Blueberries are a rich source of brain-healthy antioxidants. They’ve been shown to protect neurons from oxidative stress. Other good choices are beans, cranberries, artichokes, prunes and raspberries. Herbs and spices such as ginger, sage, rosemary, turmeric and many others are chock full of antioxidant compounds to protect the brain and support numerous other areas of health as well.
Stock up on omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in fish, flax seed, raw nuts and seeds, grass-fed beef and wild organ meat, but few other foods.
Yes, omega-3s are touted more often for their heart benefits. But they are even more crucial to brain health. A study published in the journal Neurology found that people deficient in omega-3s had smaller brains and did more poorly in cognitive tests. The researchers also asserted that omega-3s reduce signs of aging in the brain.
Vitamin E has also been associated with improved cognitive health. In addition, one study indicated it can help patients recover after a stroke. Vitamin E is also a potent antioxidant. Be sure to look for the natural form called “d-alpha” tocopherol often found with a blend of mixed tocopherols and tocotrienols (the lesser-known forms of vitamin E). Avoid the “dl-alpha” tocopherol form which is synthetic and not well absorbed.
Another supplement that benefits brain health is curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric. In a recent study from the Salk Institute, a drug derived from curcumin reversed Alzheimer’s disease in mice. This is not an isolated study. Other research has shown that curcumin influences neuron creation and enhances memory.
Working out the brain
Multiple studies have shown a close relationship between exercise and improved brain function. One project found that women over 65 who walked 30 minutes a day slowed their cognitive decline. When measuring mental acuity, the researchers found that the people who exercised appeared several years younger than those in the control group, who did not exercise at all.
Another study comparing activity levels and brain health looked at people over 70. The more active group was significantly less likely to develop cognitive problems. The study also helped clarify the types of activities that promote cognitive health. In addition to “normal” exercise, the researchers found that simple actions, such as standing up and walking around the room, were also beneficial.
Other research has shown that exercise can actually increase brain size. One study used MRIs to compare brain sizes in people who exercised with those who did not. The exercise group did significantly better. Maintaining a larger brain is important because one of the side effects of aging is reduced brain volume, which may be implicated in cognitive decline.
Meditation for your mind
The calming effects of meditation are well documented. However, some research has shown that the practice actually changes brain architecture. Scientists at UCLA found that meditation increases the folding in the cerebral cortex, a process called cortical gyrification, which improves the brain’s ability to process information. Specifically, increased gyrification helps us retrieve memories, form decisions and focus.
To me, the most striking aspect of these recommendations is their applicability to overall health. Diet, appropriate supplements, exercise and meditation also benefit heart health, can reduce the risk of cancer, diabetes and metabolic syndrome, and simply make us feel better. In the big picture, good practices support health at all levels, forming a foundation for mind-body wellness, longevity and vitality.
GUEST COLUMN BY DR. ELIAZ
Dr. Isaac Eliaz, MD, LAc is a respected author, lecturer, researcher, and clinical practitioner. He is the Director of Amitabha Medical Center in Santa Rosa, CA, where he has been treating cancer and chronic diseases for over a decade using individualized, integrative treatments and therapies.
Dr. Eliaz has authored numerous peer-reviewed publications on integrative cancer therapies, has been featured in magazines including: Men’s Journal, Women’s Health, Prevention, Woman’s World, Healthy Living, Natural Solutions Magazine and Rodale.com. Over the last few years, he has pioneered the use of apheresis technology, a specific blood filtration therapy used to treat chronic inflammatory diseases such as autoimmune disease, Lyme disease and cancer.