I watched helplessly as my Grandmother progressively lost her memory after turning 80. She could no longer do her usual long drives from Virginia to New York to go to various christenings, graduations, marriages and other family events. For my mother, the loss of memory started even earlier, at age 71.
So when the Center for Disease Control (CDC), citing a US study,1 announced the diagnoses of Dementia and Alzheimer’s diseases (for which there is no known cure) were going to almost triple between 2013 and 2050, I paid attention. According to the same study, as of 2013 almost 5 million Americans were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease.
I had a lot of questions:
-Are Dementia and Alzheimer’s a normal, inevitable part of aging?
-If they are, then why are the numbers increasing so dramatically in the US and in other Western nations?
-If they’re not a normal part of aging, what could be their cause?
-Is there anything we can do to prevent them so we don’t become another statistic ?
It’s true that aging demographics, particularly the aging Baby Boomer population in the US, are responsible in part for the increase in these diagnoses. And though vast research on the brain has shown that age-related cognitive decline is normal over time, it is not the whole answer to the explosion of Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in Western nations. The rest of the answer, according to the latest scientific research, is that these conditions are brought on by the cumulative effects over many years of lifestyle choices: a diet high in refined foods, lack of exercise, inability to manage stress and exposure to toxins in food and the environment.
Scientists have already spoken out emphatically about the continued uses of trans fats in processed foods and their effect on brain health over the long term. These partially hydrogenated oils used in industrial foods to increase their shelf life can decrease the “shelf life” of the consumer. There is a suspected link between trans fat consumption, memory loss and Alzheimer’s due to the negative effects of transfats on vascular health and hence on the blood supply to the brain. The U.S. Government decided to have them phased out of the US food supply.
Others have researched and written books about the effect of a diet high in refined carbohydrates, particularly from grains, and their effects on neurological degeneration2.
The good news is that you can actively reduce your risk of developing Dementia or Alzheimer’s disease – but you need to make healthy choices sooner rather than later in life about how you want to age.
Action steps to take right now:
So what are 3 steps you can take right now to ensure you have a fighting chance against these illnesses ?
A study was done exploring the link between Alzheimer’s and diet, addressing the risk factors of deficiencies in folate, vitamin B12, and the antioxidant vitamins A, E, and C as well as the protective factors of fish (omega-3 fatty acids) and vegetable consumption3.
According to Dr. Mark Hyman, Director of the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Functional Medecine, autopsies on Alzheimer’s brains showed vast inflammation. Consistently overconsuming sugar and not eating enough healthy fats leads to inflammation in the body. Systemic inflammation over the long term effects negatively the brain, especially the aging brain. Therefore, control your insulin and balance your blood sugar.
To do this:
- phase out low quality industrial foods & phase in more real whole foods, fruits & vegetables, preferably organic (less toxic load, higher nutrient value)
- Add brain nurturing fats to your diet : avocado & coconut oils, omega fatty acids from oily fish (your brain is esssentially made up of fat and needs fat from the diet to maintain itself, says Dr. David Perlmutter, Neurologist).
- Add good quality supplements to your diet : a good multi-vitamin and, for those over 50, vitamins B12, and Folic Acid. According to Dr. Bruce Ames (Member of the National Academy of Sciences, Professor Emeritus of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at UC Berkeley and Senior Scientist at Children’s Hospital Oakland, Calif. Research Institute), even with a perfect diet in today’s modern world, insufficiencies exist. If they are left unchecked, these insufficiences speed up the aging process. The safety of vitamin suppplementation is well established, so don’t take chances, suppplement.
- Alcohol, in general, is not your brain’s friend. Some studies show red wine has a protective effect on the vascular system, but only in small amounts and in mid to later life. Better to reduce alcohol intake to 2 glasses of wine per day maximum for men and one for women and go several days per week without any alcohol at all. (Your waistline will thank you and you might sleep better, too).
Physical Exercise has been found by scientitsts to be so essential for the brain, and for health in general, that it is being called « the fourth nutrient » (after proteins, fats & carbs). Aerobic activity has even been shown to increase the size of the pre-frontal cortex, our center of reasoning4.
- Increase physical activity during the week by including more walking (get off one stop earlier in public transport and walk the rest of the way to work, walk at lunchtime) and include more strenuous activity on the weekends.
Mental Exercise : forget the crossword puzzles as your unique form of mental gymnastics : much more sophisticated and interactive systems exists to give your brain a work out using the latest research. For example, in a joint venture from Harvard & Stanford Universities : Lumosity. The game adjusts to your level, slowing when mistakes are made & speeding up or increasing difficulty when it becomes too easy for you. A variety of games are available to work different aspects of cognition. We’ve come a long way from the static crossword puzzle.
- Social activity
And finally, social connection and a varied and supportive social life have been shown to have a beneficial effect on the brain and aging:
- Limit or eliminate contact with toxic people who ruin your day .
- Make concerted efforts to maintain & develop a varied, supportive social life with people whose company you enjoy. In this age of Socail Media, it has been shown by scientists that those who age well are those who have a supportive social structure, not those who have the most virtual Facebook friends5. According to Dan Buettner, in 1994 the average American had 3 good friends. As of 2009 he had only 1 or 2 close friends.
Do you have family members or know someone with Dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease?
Have you thought about how you wanted to age? Do you think the adjustments suggested above in diet and lifestyle are too difficult or complicated for you?
Below are 2 books for further reading which may interest you:
- “The End of Alzheimer’s: The First Program to Prevent and Reverse Cognitive Decline” by Dr. Dale Bredesen, Avery Press, August 2017
- “Brain Maker: The Power of Gut Microbes to Heal and Protect Your Brain for Life” by Dr. David Perlmutter & Kristin Loberg; Little, Brown & Company; April 2015
- Hebert LE, Weuve J, Scherr PA, Evans DL.: Alzheimer disease in the United States (2010–2050) estimated using the 2010 census. Neurology. 2013;80:1778-83.http://dx.doi.org/10.1212/WNL.0b013e31828726f5
- “Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth about Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar-Your Brain’s Silent Killers”, By Dr. David Permutter and Kristin Loberg, Little, Brown and Company, September 17, 2013
- Qiu C, Kivipelto M, von Strauss E.: Epidemiology of Alzheimer’s disease: Occurrence, determinants, and strategies toward intervention. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience. 2009;11 (2):111-128).
- “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain”, Little, Brown and Company; 1st edition (January 10, 2008), by Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, John J. Ratey (Harvard Medical School)
- “The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest”, by Dan Buettner, National Geographic; 2nd edition (November 6, 2012)