Is losing one’s memory a reality of aging? Must we all lose mental acuity as we age? Can Alzheimer’s Disease be fended off? These are a few of the issues discussed in this article.
Until quite recently, it was accepted as a fact that losing one’s memory and brain acuity was just a sad reality of aging. Absent-mindedness, senility, dementia, and other symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease, were considered the norm associated with getting old–with little or no recourse. The best one could do, according to many authorities, was keep the brain as active as possible: do crossword puzzles, read, learn a foreign language to slow down the inevitable. But while these measures do appear to have remarkable effects on brain activity and retention of mental facilities, recent studies show that nutrition and lifestyle play a much bigger role than ever believed possible. Seems that not only is “what you eat what you are,” your total lifestyle may well determine how your brain functions as you pass your “prime.”
A matter of biology
When is baby is born, its brain already holds approximately 100,000,000,000 neurons. To accomplish this incredible feat, the fetus develops new brain cells at a rate of about 250,000 per minute throughout a typical nine-month pregnancy. Science now recognizes that this remarkable process is made possible due to “neuronutrient” building blocks known as omega-3 fatty acids–in particular DHA. Very high concentrations of DHA are typically found in healthy breast milk, nature’s way of providing these essential tools. Once a baby is born, external stimulation–from many sources–triggers the brain activity needed to learn and grow, with growth spurts at ages 7, 11–12, and 15 years; spurts that yield amazing results in terms of overall cognitive function. But for reasons not understood until recently, the cognitive decline begins shortly after adulthood (around 25 years of age), setting off a gradual cascading deterioration. But with 100 billion neurons to work with, wouldn’t you think there’d be enough to promote a fully-functioning brain throughout life? Well, that may be exactly what nature intended–with diet and lifestyle the keys.
Americans have one of the highest rates of brain-toxifying diets in the world–highest in saturated fats, trans fat, chemical additives, and refined sugar. Sugar, for example, can lead to glucose spikes and crashes, causing wildly fluctuating brain-energy levels. Fatty meats, cream, and whole milk, lard, shortening, and butter contain artery-clogging saturated fats that impede blood flow to the brain and lead to poor cardiovascular health-related to cognitive decline. Cookies, potato chips, doughnuts, fried chicken, candy, muffins, and French fries are infamous for containing excessively high levels of hydrogenated fats and trans fat; fats that interfere with the absorption of omega-3 fatty acids (those essential brain-building blocks), while clogging the arteries. Junk foods and processed foods commonly contain numerous preservatives, colorings, and other harmful additives believed to interfere with brain function. Carbonated beverages (sodas) are often high in phosphorous, which interferes with the absorption of the neurotransmitter-boosting mineral calcium. And last but not least, alcohol and caffeine are known to interfere with the absorption of vitamins like B, and zinc, potassium, and iron–all essential neuro-nutrients. These “nutritionally-devoid” foods can drastically contribute to a “toxic brain.”
On the other side of the coin, however, are several foods that improve brain activity and promote an active mind. Fish, as the adage goes, is “brain food.” The omega-3 fatty acids in tuna, salmon, and mackerel (great sources of DHA) help support a healthy brain. Fruits and vegetables, especially spinach, blueberries, and strawberries are bursting with antioxidants that protect the brain from “free radical” damage. Grains like oats, millet, and brown rice protect the brain by supporting healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels–key factors associated with the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease. Nuts and seeds like walnuts, flax, and almonds are rich in omega-3 fatty acids as well as vitamin E and calcium. And egg yolks are a prime source of the brain-critical neuronutrient choline. A diet containing these brain-supporting chemicals is now believed to not only improve brain activity but reverse the damage caused by toxins.
While diet is a major contributor to our toxic brain condition, several lifestyle and environmental factors are known to inhibit brain activity. Smoking, for example, depletes neuro-nutrients and dumps major loads of toxins into our brains. Sedentary lifestyles (lacking brain stimulation) contribute greatly to cognitive decline (especially when coupled with another toxic intake). Stress, so common to most of our lives today, creates a massive obstacle to cognitive function. (In short, stress shuts down brain cells!) Hypertension, high cholesterol, and diabetes have been shown to increase age-related cognitive decline. Alcohol (when consumed to excess) leads to short-term memory loss as well as overall cognitive decline. And synthetic drugs (including cough suppressants, barbiturates, antidepressants, and MAO inhibitors) have been directly linked to the symptoms of dementia and cognitive decline.
For many individuals accustomed to the trappings of immediate gratification, overindulgence, and 21st-century stressors, making the dietary and lifestyle changes necessary to extend mental acuity may seem like a lot of work with little reward. (“So, I’ll have a better memory when I’m old–so what?!”) But when you factor in that the United States, for example, leads the world in many life-threatening diseases including several forms of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and mental illness–all of which are improved by making such a lifestyle sacrifice–it seems no sacrifice at all! And when a few other realities are factored into one’s health and lifestyle outlook, there can be a world of benefits far beyond the mental rewards. Firstly, never underestimate the benefits of simple exercise. Exercise boosts brainpower and can void the brain of toxins and benefit the body in innumerable other ways–improving the circulatory, respiratory, immune, digestive, and other bodily systems. Secondly, the brain is a “use it or lose it organ.” Learning new things–whether doing crossword puzzles, reading, or learning a foreign language–builds new synapses (mental connections) and helps reinforce old ones. And by increasing brain function, you can positively affect all the senses–sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. And thirdly, dietary and lifestyle improvements will not only detoxify your brain and help you retain memory, but they can also systemically improve the way your body functions as a whole–improving attitude, vitality (energy levels), and ability to deal with stress. By feeding the brain, you are in reality feeding the body, mind, and ultimately, the spirit!