I attended an event hosted by the Neurological Foundation last month aimed at educating the public on Alzheimer’s prevention. The Foundation invited a world leader in the field, Professor Gary Small from UCLA, to speak on the subject. Dementia is a major challenge to the health sector today, it is more of a burden on society than cancer and heart disease combined. About 10% of people over the age of 65 will develop dementia, and today there are 40,000 people in NZ suffering with this illness.
Researchers are busy coming up with pharmaceuticals to treat dementia, but everyone agrees it’s preferable to protect a healthy brain than to repair a damaged one.
With this in mind, the program aimed to address 2 main questions;
1. Do we have any control over our brain health as we age?
2. What can we do to forestall brain deterioration?
Well, question 2 answers question 1 which is great news. There are 3 common factors in communities around the world where people maintain good health, well into old age and enjoy extreme longevity. These are;
1. Regular physical exercise
2. Social networks
3. A diet rich in antioxidants (fruits, vegetable, healthy grains and proteins).
The most compelling evidence is related to physical exercise. Studies have shown that cardiovascular conditioning (such as brisk walking) increases your brain size, memory and cognition. 20 minutes of brisk walking a day decreases your Alzheimer’s risk. Another interesting point which has come out of recent research is that people who sit for long periods have a smaller hippocampus which is an important part of the brain related to memory. So take regular breaks from your desk at work!
Mental stimulation is also thought to decrease your risk of Alzheimer’s however the evidence isn’t as compelling. What we do know is that with training, your memory can be improved very quickly and maintained for a long period afterward. Games that teach multitasking reduce brain aging, improve visual attention and reaction time – so the odd video game is a good thing. Learning a musical instrument or a new language is good and there are some simple games which help with memory and cognition such as “Look, Snap, Connect”. See the link below for an explanation;
In terms of diet, the Mediterranean approach is thought to be best. Lots of omega 3 fatty acids from fish, nuts, olive oil, and at least 5 servings of fresh fruit and vegetables daily will protect the brain from oxidative stress.
This ties in nicely to the 7 major risk factors for developing dementia;
1. Obesity (increases risk by 4 times)
3. Type II Diabetes
4. Physical inactivity
5. Low education/cognitive inactivity
Stress, especially long term, increases your risk of Alzheimer’s. It’s been found to decrease brain size and impair memory. Stress management methods can improve memory and positively affect the brain – for example, 10 minutes of daily meditation, tai chi or plain old relaxation/time out have an important impact on brain health. The “Are you Alright” campaign in Christchurch has some great tips on stress management;
The good news is that caffeine and red wine (in moderation) are considered brain protective drinks. Research has found that the brain of Alzheimer’s sufferers has an inflammatory response, so reducing inflammatory system activity may protect brain health. Turmeric has anti-inflammatory and anti-plaque (brain plaques found in Alzheimer’s patients) benefits, and pomegranate juice has anti-oxidative polyphenols (ie good stuff!). Other important strategies in reducing inflammation are getting a good night’s sleep, physical exercise and good old omega 3 fatty acids.
Dr Small’s take home message was simple – exercise, eat a healthy diet and keep your brain stimulated. He has written a book call “2 weeks to a younger brain” which has practical strategies and exercises for a healthy brain. You can find it on his website;