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Researchers are predicting that the rate of cognitive and memory decline in the elderly may skyrocket in the next 50 years. The good news is that there are emerging strategies that have potential to prevent this brain drain explosion.
In a large study published in the prestigious journal, The Lancet, researchers evaluated the effects of some of the more popular brain health lifestyle strategies for more than 1200 adults between the ages of 60 and 77 years. (1)
Before the study, the group scored low on memory tests before the study and had higher-than-normal risk factors for age-related cognitive decline, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high blood sugar, excess weight and a sedentary lifestyle.
In the study, they gave half the group lifestyle strategies for preventative brain health and the other group received general health advice.
The lifestyle intervention group received:
- The DASH (Dietary Approach to Slow Hypertension) Diet – which includes fruits, veggies, whole grains, low-fat dairy, meat and fish at least 2 times a week, no butter, minimal sugar and salt.
- Aerobic exercise 2-5 times per week and strength training 3 times per week.
- Brain “fitness” games on the computer for 10-15 minutes 3 times a week.
After 2 years, the lifestyle intervention group significantly outperformed the control group with higher scores for follow-up tests on mental speed and executive function. (1) The researchers concluded that, while there is little known in terms of therapies to actually reverse age-related cognitive decline, there is much to be done in the realm of prevention before symptoms begin to manifest.
This study made it clear that a plant-based diet low in bad fats with regular exercise and cognitive stimulation helps to support better brain health. With cognitive health concerns being the next epidemic, these should be considered the basics for a healthy brain and body. Consider challenging yourself to do more for your precious noodle!
Sugar Brain Blues
The research is very clear on what factors are the most damaging for the brain… and sugar takes the cake. The brain employs an enzyme called the insulin-degrading enzyme, which helps remove excess sugar from the brain. While the brain loves sugar – it’s a delicate and complex organ – so there can be too much or too little. If blood sugar levels are chronically high but still within the “normal” range, the insulin-degrading enzyme might be shoveling excess sugar out of your brain for the next 30 years.
The insulin-degrading enzyme also has another job. It escorts brain plaque, which is tied to cognitive decline, out of the brain as well. So, here is the rub: If the insulin-degrading enzyme spends the next 30 years shoveling out excess sugar, it may not be able to keep up with its brain plaque-removal responsibilities. (12)
Unfortunately, the “normal” levels on your blood test (between 70-99 mg/dL) allow us to maintain higher blood sugar levels than are actually safe – as it takes years before the new research trickles down to your doctor’s office or on a lab test. We must be proactive and take some of the healthcare reins back!
Turbo-Charge Your Workouts
New studies have suggested that regular exercise is actually better for the brain than brain game exercises like Sudoku or crossword puzzles. What is scarce in exercise recommendations are any instructions on how to breathe. In my first book, Body, Mind and Sport, we did brain research on the effects of nose versus mouth breathing during exercise. We found that when you breathe through the nose, the brain slips into a meditative alpha state versus the stressed-out beta state that we saw with mouth breathing. We also saw that nose breathing exercise established brain wave coherence and less fight-or-flight emergency nervous system stress compared to mouth breathing exercise. (2)
During your next workout, try breathing through the nose. If you have to open your mouth to breath, slow down.
Foods rich in antioxidants such as blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, pomegranates and cherries are naturally lymph-moving foods. The brain has newly discovered lymphatic channels, called glymphatics, which remove more than 3 pounds of toxins and plaque from the brain each year – all while you sleep. These lymph-moving foods are fundamental for brain health and brain lymph flow. (10,11)
In a study published in the journal, Neurology, a special protein in the brain has been linked to better cognitive function and memory as we age. In the study, the people who had more of this protein had a 50% lower rate of memory and cognitive function as they aged compared to those who had the lowest levels of this protein. (3)
This protein is encoded by a gene called the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), and researchers are now discovering ways to boost BDNF. In the study, they followed 535 people for six years with an average age of 81. During the study, they measured memory and thinking skills annually. After death, they measured the amount of BDNF in the brain and found that the folks with the highest BDNF levels had the clearest brain function. (3)
BDNF has been shown to be both protective of brain function as well as help the brain grow new brain cells. (13)
Ayurvedic Brain BDNF Boosters
There are only a handful of herbs that contain constituents shown to boost BDNF levels in the blood, and the main ones happen to be Ayurvedic herbs.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) may be the world’s most powerful adaptogen, which means it helps the body adapt to stress. It is known for it’s ability to boost energy, muscular strength, stamina and endurance in the morning and help support deep sleep in the evening. (4)
In the brain, Ashwagandha has been shown to support the health of the nervous system while boosting the natural production of BDNF. (4) It is a root that has been cooked in soups and stews for thousands of years.
Bacopa (Bacopa monnieri) is perhaps one of Ayurveda’s most powerful herbs to support brain health, memory and cognitive function. Constituents of bacopa have also been shown to boost BDNF levels in the blood. It is commonly used with kids to support mental clarity and focus. It is also used to support emotional health and stable moods when under stress. (5)
Turmeric (Curcuma longa) has emerged as one of the world’s most powerful and popular herbs, foods or spices. Originally, turmeric was known for it’s ability to support liver function while shielding the inner and outer skin of the body from undesirable microbes. It has demonstrated support for healthy cell function and cellular replication and, more recently, it’s support for the brain and nervous system have been discovered. Constituents of turmeric have also been found to boost BDNF levels in the blood while supporting healthy brain cell rejuvenation, cognitive function and mental and emotional health. (5,6,7,8,9)
Turmeric has been cooked in curries and soups and used as kitchen remedy for just about anything for thousands of years. Studies suggest that mixing turmeric with black pepper in a ratio of 16:1 can boost it’s absorption rate into the bloodstream by 2000%. (8)
Brain Vitamin Deficiencies
I have discussed in many previous articles the positive effects that vitamin D3 and B12 have on brain function. These are both deficiencies that affect more than half the world’s population. Make sure you are getting sufficient amounts of these vitamins.
While defending your brain may be as easy as exercise, eating a healthy diet and keeping your mind active as we saw in the Lancet study, there is much more we can all do to protect the brain as we age.