Last month I had the opportunity to do a corporate lunch and learn for Nest Health Connections and one of their clients. Brain health is something I am so passionate about! As you may or may not know, I am on faculty and practice clinically at the University of Colorado in the Department of Neurology (in addition to my work at Wild Rice Wellness. When we think in terms of health and longevity, we have to think about brain and cognitive health because what is the point of living longer if we are dealing with a failing mind? We can, and we must, pay attention to this. Currently, more than 6 million Americans are diagnosed with dementia and by 2050 that number is expected to grow to greater than 12 million!! So what exactly can we do about it? Let’s dive in!
Genetics and Epigenetics
We know there are certain genes that put a person more at risk for Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia but the good news is that our genes are not our destiny. There is a lot we can do to turn off or turn on certain genes to avoid what may have once been thought of as a genetic fate. This is known as epigenetics or how our environment (aka our lifestyle choices) acts on our genes. There are many cases of those with certain genetic predispositions, such as having specific APOE gene alleles, where they never go on to develop cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s disease. That is good news! There is so much in our hands that we can do to prevent cognitive decline, starting and ending with lifestyle. Up to this point, drugs have been largely ineffective at slowly or improving the symptoms of cognitive decline so we must take things into our own hands to stay as healthy as possible.
You may have heard this term thrown around from time to time in recent years, but what does neuroplasticity exactly mean? It was once thought that the brain and its functioning was fixed through adulthood. We now recognize this is not true. Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to form and reorganize connections, particularly in the response to learning or experience. This is also good news! We can, at any point, learn new things and change the wiring of our brains!
Lifestyle Pillars of Cognitive Health
We are we eat, digest and absorb so focusing on a high quality, whole foods diet will improve our chances of living long with all of our cognitive faculties. There has been an abundance of research looking at the Mediterranean diet as it relates to cognitive health and an even newer study looking at the MIND Diet which combines the Mediterranean style diet with the DASH diet and showed that those individuals who closely followed the MIND Diet, had a 53% lower rate of Alzheimer’s Disease! The following are general nutrition principles from the MIND Diet:
- Real, whole foods
- Minimal processed food, sugar, alcohol
- Healthy fats (fish, avocado, nuts, seeds, olive oil)
- High quality protein
- Abundance of vegetables and fruits (diversity is key!)
- Whole grains, low glycemic
- Minimizing sodium
Brain Health Food Bonus!
- Fatty fish
- Green leafy vegetables
- Nuts and seeds
The best thing you can do to support brain health and cognitive function is sleep! Poor sleep is significant risk factor for cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s Disease. When we are sleeping, our glymphatic system is most active. The glymphatic system helps to clean up toxins, debris and metabolic waste in the brain and helps to deliver things like glucose and amino acids to the brain for repair and nourishment. If we are lacking on sleep, this metabolic clean up is diminished leading, potentially, to Alzheimer’s Disease and Neurodegenerative Disease. Lack of sleep also affects our short-term memory, cognition and ability to learn new information. So, prioritize getting at least 7 hours of sleep per night or optimal cognitive health, both now and for the future.
Another lifestyle tool for brain health is to keep moving! Exercise improves blood flow to the brain, reduces inflammation and lowers our stress hormone production (cortisol), which can improve cognitive function. Exercise has also been shown to increase brain volume, especially in the hippocampus (our memory center). Movement has also been shown to enhance neuroplasticity. So, it is important to get active and stay moving throughout our lives. Pick a form of exercise that is enjoyable and you can stick with. Research shows that getting at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise 5 days per week or 15 minutes of high intensity training 3 days per week is most helpful.
Challenge the Mind
Keeping the mind active is another way to enhance neuroplasticity and minimize brain volume decline. This can look like: taking a course to learn a new skill, learning or practicing an instrument, word or number games, board or video games!
Stress and Social Connection
Acute stress can improve cognition in a stressful situation but in the long run chronic stress will impair memory. Chronic stress changes the brains structure, can lead to a reduction in production of new neurons (particularly in the hippocampus), and can even shrink the brain. Stress increases the susceptibility to depression and may accelerate the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease. Social connection is similarly important in maintaining the brains structure and function. Social connection increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which plays an important role in neuron survival and growth and enhances neuroplasticity.
Supplements for Brain Health
There are some supplements for brain health that can help to enhance and preserve cognitive function and these can include:
- Omega 3 Fatty Acid (EPA/DHA)
- Magnesium glycinate or threonate
- B Vitamins
- Vitamin D
As always, crucial to test and not guess and work with a practitioner who knows you and your health history to make sure there are no interactions or contraindications for supplements.
As with all chronic disease, prevention is key for brain and cognitive health. There is so much we can do in our day-to-day lives to prevent and reverse cognitive decline. If you are looking with a practitioner to work with to ensure optimal brain health and longevity, I am taking on new patients for December! Schedule a free 15 minute consultation below!