March is Brain Health Awareness Month. We’ve posted an article
by Dr. Lauren Russel, ND Tahoma Clinic, Tukwila.
Brain Health: A Part of Healthy Aging
When I’m talking to patients about their symptoms, I’m often asked, “Am I losing my mind?” It’s natural to think that, every time you forget a name or misplace your keys, it’s a sign of a problem. While we hear so much about cognitive decline, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease, a momentary lapse in memory is not necessarily a sign of something worse to come.
Even though it’s an important topic in the news and around the dinner table, many of us are unaware of the early warning signs of cognitive changes. What’s important to know is that cognitive decline may not be a foregone conclusion and there may be things that you can do to improve brain health.
In fact, living a brain healthy lifestyle now may just help reduce your risk factors and optimize your health years before there is a problem.
When is it more than forgetfulness?
When we’re talking about changes in brain health, we’re referring to more than one condition. In general, these conditions can be loosely organized into four different types: Alzheimer’s disease, frontotemporal dementia, dementia with Lewy bodies, and vascular cognitive impairment.
Although the symptoms for each of these conditions may vary, progressive memory loss occurs with each, along with deterioration in physical and behavioral skills.
Diagnosis takes more than just forgetting something or the inability to remember a name or a face. You would have to show signs of a problem in more than one area. In addition to memory loss, one might have communication and language difficulties, a hard time focusing and paying attention, impairment in the ability to reason or understand things, inability to manage finances, and sometimes, changes in visual perception.
These types of problems often disrupt daily life, causing confusion about time and place and the inability to retrace one’s steps. Others may notice these changes and mention them.
Are brain changes and cognitive decline a normal part of aging?
Many of us have been led to believe that these changes are part of normal aging. Studies suggest that many of the symptoms we associate with cognitive decline are, in fact, a consequence of abnormal brain aging. In truth, cognitive function and reaction time should stay relatively the same as the brain ages.
Changes in cognition do not happen all at once, but seem to evolve over time. Research suggests that in some cases, brain changes can occur as early as age 30, although this is rare. The point is that it is never too soon to adopt a brain-healthy lifestyle.
The Bredesen Study
Researchers have identified many potential causes of abnormal brain aging, many of which are summarized in a study conducted by Dr. Dale Bredesen at UCLA entitled, “Reversal of Cognitive Decline: A Novel Therapeutic Program.” In this study, Dr. Bredesen very nicely summarized many of these causes, ranging from oxidative stress and inflammation, to nutritional deficiencies and heavy metal toxicity, with possible ways of treating them without the use of drugs.
In the study, ten participants with varying degrees of cognitive decline were asked to implement some, but not all, of the lifestyle, dietary, and physical recommendations over the course of 3-6 months and then their responses to the customized program were documented. Of the ten study participants, nine improved in significant ways, from improving results on mental status exams to the ability to return to work or to improved overall health and function. While more study needs to be done, it demonstrated that cognitive decline may be able to be reversed or slowed or even prevented with some of these interventions.
Some of the physical, dietary and lifestyle recommendations mentioned in the Bredesen study are summarized below. It is by no means an exhaustive list, but can help focus you on where to begin to optimize your health and lifestyle to reduce cognitive changes or other healthcare risks.
These are also interventions and strategies that have been suggested by natural health practitioners for years as part of a brain-healthy lifestyle.
What can you do to maintain a healthy brain?
1.Keep moving physically.
Daily exercise, including walking, yoga, tai chi or interval training, helps to maintain a healthy brain. Exercise appears to reduce memory loss by reducing the damaging effects of oxidative stress and other toxic insults.
In the book, Aging with Grace, Dr. David Snowdon shared the story of a study subject who took up walking at age 70 and kept dementia at bay, even though her brain at autopsy showed the classic signs of Alzheimer’s disease.
2.Set healthy dietary goals.
Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, insulin resistance, and being overweight are among the health risks for cognitive decline. Inflammation and oxidative stress are a big part of the problem.
To maintain a healthy brain, you want to maintain healthy eating habits, including consuming a variety of, preferably, organic fruits and vegetables, fish (wild caught not farmed), organic free-range chicken, organic grass-fed beef, bison and other meats and avoid refined foods.
3.Stimulate the brain.
Engaging in brain-stimulating activities, such as brain games, crossword puzzles, Sudoku, and even internet searches, seem to stimulate neural pathways and improve cognitive function.
Spending time with family and friends and being engaged socially are important aspects of healthy brain aging.
Activities like yoga and meditation help reduce stress and inflammation and in turn support brain health.
4.Get enough sleep
To reduce stress, improve oxygenation and support detoxification, get 7-8 hours of sleep each night. If sleep does not come easily, then using sleep aids such as melatonin may be helpful. Consider treatment for sleep apnea if it is a problem.
5.Take supplements to support cognitive function
This is a vast area of discussion. You may want to work with a doctor skilled and knowledgeable in this area to help you develop a good supplement program, in addition to implementing other brain healthy strategies.
For example, supplementation might be helpful to address each of the following:
a.Vitamin D3 deficiency has been associated with increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
b.Vitamin B12 reduces homocysteine, which, when elevated, has been associated with increased dementia risk.
c.CoQ10 and fish oil reduce inflammation and oxidative stress, both of which have been linked to increased dementia risk.
6.Take care of your teeth
Maintaining good oral hygiene, including regular flossing, is important to reducing infection and inflammation, which can be a risk to a healthy brain.
7.Consider hormone replacement
For some, hormone replacement therapy may help retain cognitive function and be neuroprotective, in addition to its other healthcare benefits.
- Test and monitor your numbers.
It’s a good idea to work with your doctor to do annual blood testing, including a complete blood count (CBC), a comprehensive metabolic panel, and other tests of nutrition and absorption to be sure you are remaining within normal limits.
Then, monitor your numbers – blood pressure, blood sugar, heart rate, temperature, and weight – as these provide you and your doctor with an early warning system about anything that might compromise your health and, most importantly, brain health.
And in conclusion:
If you want to develop a personalized program using some of the steps described above, you may want to follow up with a doctor skilled and knowledgeable in natural health, hormone therapy, supplementation and other aspects of a brain healthy program.
If cognitive decline does already seem to be a problem, follow up with your doctor to see what the next steps might be. The ability to assess cognitive changes has improved in recent years and using some of these strategies may help as they did in the Bredesen study.
If you are looking for a program that might work for you or a family member or friend, you might consider Tahoma Clinic’s reCOGNITION program, soon to roll out for the assessment and treatment of cognitive impairment using some of the information described here.
Bredesen Dale E. Reversal of cognitive decline: A novel therapeutic program; 2014; Aging (6): 707-717.
2014 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures, Alzheimer’s Association
Snowdon David. Aging With Grace. What the Nun Study Teaches Us About Leading Longer, Healthier, and More Meaningful Lives. 2001; Bantam Books, New York
Russel Lauren. Living a Healthy Brain Lifestyle to Prevent Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease; 2012; Praktikos Institute online.
Dr. Russel is currently accepting new patients. Please contact 206-812-9988 to schedule an appointment.