As both a primary care and hospice physician, I unfortunately come across cases of Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of advanced dementia fairly often. Although some cutting-edge medications and interventions are currently available with new research rolling out every day, I am often disappointed in their efficacy and wish there was more I could offer my patients. This frustration has pushed me to take an entirely different approach to this issue with my clinic patients, researching methods to prevent cognitive decline and optimize brain health now. I recently came across the work of Doctors Dean and Ayesha Sherzai, married neurologists and directors of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Program at Loma Linda University Medical Center. In this blog post, I will summarize some of their work, providing you with food and lifestyle changes you can make now to prevent cognitive decline in the future.
A diagnosis of dementia is made every 64 seconds in the United States.
1 in 10 people over the age of 65 is diagnosed with dementia. Almost 50% of people over 85
carries this diagnosis. Notice this rapid incline in numbers? This is because the diagnosis is made only once function is severely impaired. However, the cognitive decline that led to the diagnosis likely began in the patients’ 30s and 40s. While changes to your brain and body are inevitable and totally normal with age, certain lifestyle habits can help slow age-related deterioration and even work to optimize brain health!
Eight lifestyle habits to achieve optimal brain health:
1. Sleep like a Baby
The most important hours of the day for your brain health are the ones you spend sleeping,” says Dr. Ayesha Sherzai. Sleep has two very important functions—organization and waste removal. While sleeping, your brain has the opportunity to consolidate and compartmentalize all of your memories and thoughts from the previous day. Sleep also allows for the cleaning of accumulated waste. While the brain only makes up 2% of the body’s weight, it consumes up to 25% of the body’s energy. Therefore, you can only imagine the amount of waste it produces. If not removed, this waste can damage the brain. Most of the cleansing in the brain is done by an amazingly efficient mechanism called the glymphatic system, which is most active during sleep. While, short- term sleep deprivation can impair memory and focus, long-term sleep deficits can lead to accumulation of toxin-induced tissue destruction and subsequent development of cognitive decline and even dementia. Check out my recent blog post for tips to improve sleep.
2. Move Your Body
Exercise has a massive impact on brain health through multiple processes. Via its effect on the vascular system, exercise increases blood flow to the brain, reducing stiffness of the blood vessels and preventing cholesterol plaque buildup. Exercise also helps to fertilize brain growth by exponentially increasing the release of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, which promotes formation of connections between neurons. Exercise also reduces the effects of inflammation and oxidative processes which have been shown to lead to functional deterioration within the brain and other parts of the body.
The great news is that you don’t have to sign up for a triathlon to reap these benefits! Research shows that just 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity is enough. That means a 30-minute brisk walk on weekdays is all you need!
3. Food for Thought
According to Dr. Sherzai, “Food is the single greatest tool that we have for building better brain health.” While some physicians lean toward more of a solely plant-based diet in order to achieve maximal benefits, it is the general consensus among those in the field that even a plant RICH diet, such as the Mediterranean Diet is beneficial. Furthermore, Drs. Sherzai state there are certain foods, which they call “the Neuro Nine,” that should be consumed on a daily basis to optimize neurological function through their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
The Neuro Nine: leafy greens, whole grains, seeds, beans, berries, nuts, crucifers, teas, herbs and spices.
4. Connect with Others
Research shows that maintaining social connections is one of the most efficient ways to build and grow your brain since these interactions activate and engage all parts of the brain. For instance, deep meaningful conversation engages the temporal lobe which is responsible for listening to and encoding the spoken word and the occipital lobe which processes visual information like the facial expressions and gestures of your partner. At the same time, these interactions recruit the frontal lobe which is responsible for processing and interpreting information and the parietal lobe which is stimulated by your creative drive to develop new content to keep the conversation going. Moreover, the limbic system becomes involved if you happen to be emotionally invested in the ideas you’re discussing.
5. Never Stop Learning
“If you don’t use it, you lose it.”
A well-known but often overlooked method for boosting brain health is to learn something new. This could be anything you desire and doesn’t have to be a monumental task like becoming fluent in an entirely new language. It could be as simple as researching a topic you’re interested in or picking up a new hobby, like gardening or birdwatching. The most important part is that you do this consistently, stimulating your brain to develop new neuronal connections on a regular basis.
6. Optimize Blood Pressure and Blood Glucose Levels
Hypertension and diabetes are two of the most damaging processes to the body, but especially to the brain. This is because these pathologies are particularly detrimental to the structure of the smallest arteries in the body. The brain, which requires a disproportionately higher amount of energy, and therefore blood flow, is fed primarily by these small vessels. Research has shown that even prediabetes, or insulin resistance, has been linked to cognitive decline. Therefore, it is best to optimize these numbers in order to prevent the structural changes in the brain that could lead to deteriorating brain function down the road.
7. Less Alcohol
Research shows that both occasional binge-drinking and regular excessive drinking can cause cognitive decline in both the short and long-term by physically damaging the brain itself. It is therefore recommended that we all stick to less than 14 units of alcohol per week; however, I suggest ingesting significantly less than this if you are interested in optimizing brain function.
8. Don’t smoke
This should be a no-brainer but it deserves to be mentioned nonetheless. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 14% of Alzheimer’s cases worldwide are potentially attributed to smoking. The toxins in cigarettes accumulate within and damage the small blood vessels that feed the brain. If you already smoke, there is still an opportunity to cease the oxidative and pro- inflammatory damage caused by this habit. Make an appointment with me to learn about the options out there that may help you make this beneficial life change.
Take Home Points
Choosing any ONE of these lifestyle interventions and sticking to it can be the first step toward optimizing your brain health.
-What you do to your brain, you do to your body, and what you do to your body, you do to your brain!
If interested in the work of Drs. Dean and Ayesha Sherzai, check out their website (link here or purchase their newly published book, “The 3-Day Alzheimer’s Solution.”
If you’d like help facilitating any of these changes, give my office a call at 985-807-1937 to schedule an appointment today!
The information and other content provided in this blog, or in any linked materials is not a substitute for professional medical expertise or treatment.