Q: Alzheimer’s runs in my family. Is there anything I can do to keep my mind sharp? — Jenna C., Tucson, Ariz.
A: One of the scariest things any of us can imagine is losing our mind—after all, who would we be without it? But memory loss is far from an inevitable consequence of aging. There are steps you can begin taking right now that may help substantially increase the likelihood that your brain will be functioning, active, and sharp well into old age.
Adopting a few simple healthy eating habits—like including fish and vegetables in your regular diet—can slow down cognitive decline by the equivalent of up to 19 years. Pretty impressive for a nondrug intervention.
The Fountain of Youth
James Joseph, PhD, a scientist at the Laboratory of Neuroscience at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, tests rats for a living. Around middle age, rats start showing the same kinds of decline in performance that humans do. But Joseph’s studies show that when you feed lab animals extracts of blueberries, wonderful things start happening.
Rats that chow down on blueberries in Joseph’s lab act like they’ve found the rat Fountain of Youth. Blueberries actually help neurons in the brain communicate with one another more effectively. Old neurons don’t “talk” to each other as much as young ones, says Joseph. Memory falters and the “processing” necessary for coordination and balance tends to decline. The technical term for this communication is signaling, and special compounds in blueberries called polyphenols actually “turn on” the signals. Joseph calls blueberries “brain berries.”
Other brain foods include wild salmon (for its high omega-3 content), nuts, seeds, avocados, beans, pomegranate juice, dark chocolate, and tea. All of these are loaded with natural antioxidants (which can prevent damage to the cells and to DNA) and with natural anti-inflammatories. Inflammation is a big component of every degenerative disease, including Alzheimer’s and cognitive impairment.
Better Neurons with Niacin
Higher intake of niacin from food has been shown in some research to be associated with a slower annual rate of cognitive decline. Foods like eggs, liver, fish, and broccoli are great sources. Bottom line: Eat your fruits and vegetables, but don’t forget your fats and protein.
One fat that has gotten a lot of attention for its effect on brain health is coconut oil. The fats in coconut oil convert in the body to ketones, which are like rocket fuel for the brain. David Perlmutter, MD, a neurologist and author of Grain Brain, considers ketogenic diets—high-fat diets that create lots of ketones—very brain-friendly.
Red Palm Oil
Red palm oil is another fat that may be particularly brain-friendly. It’s a good source of tocotrienols, which have been found to help protect the brain from damage after a stroke. And if you get your red palm oil from Malaysia, even better—Malaysia is one of the most environmentally conscious countries in the world, and Malaysian palm oil is sustainable.
Sixty percent of the brain by weight is made of fat, the lion’s share of which is DHA. Not only that, but omega-3s are anti-inflammatory, and inflammation is a huge promoter of Alzheimer’s, dementia, and cognitive impairment.
Acetyl-L-carnitine is a kind of supercharged version of carnitine that has a particularly positive effect in the brain. Perlmutter has described acetyl-L-carnitine as a “neuronal energizer.” According to the Physician’s Desk Reference, there’s preliminary evidence that acetyl-L-carnitine can slow mental decline even in the elderly who are not afflicted with dementia.
Phosphatidylserine (PS) has been shown in studies to restore brain function. It helps improve learning and name recall, concentration, face recognition, the ability to remember telephone numbers, and the ability to find misplaced objects. Biochemist and nutritional supplement expert Parris Kidd, PhD, writes: “The findings from … clinical trial(s) are unequivocal:
dietary supplementation with PS can alleviate, ameliorate, and sometimes reverse age-related decline of memory, learning, concentration, word skills, and mood.”
Glycerophosphocholine (GPC) is a supplement that has been extensively researched for its effect on mental performance, attention, concentration, and memory formation. Says Kidd, “I continue to be fascinated by GPC’s capacities to salvage function in the damaged brain, to sharpen mental performance even in people who are healthy, and to give new vitality to the aging brain.”
Alpha Lipoic Acid
One of the most respected researchers in nutrition and biochemistry, Bruce Ames, PhD, performed a series of experiments in which he gave aging rats a combination of acetyl-L-carnitine and alpha lipoic acid. Animals taking the mix performed better on memory tests and also showed general signs of vitality.
Vitamin B12 is necessary for the speed and strength of a signal being transmitted by nerve cells in the brain. If you are low in B12, the nerve impulses or messages are less effective at getting to their destinations. A deficiency of B12 may lead to mental disorders including confusion, depression, memory loss, and impaired coordination.
Vitamin B12 is also protective against the toxic buildup of another substance called homocysteine. Researchers found that a high level of homocysteine in the blood is a strong risk factor for the development of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Homocysteine levels can be brought down by vitamin B12, vitamin B6, and folic acid.
It’s common for the elderly to be deficient in B12. In one study, researchers gave subjects injections of vitamin B12 and noted “striking improvements” in their cognitive function.
A fair amount of research shows that Ginkgo biloba can increase the functional activity of the brain. It’s shown some promise in treating age-related cognitive decline, and it may also be good for people with normal cognitive function. Daniel Amen, MD—author of Change Your Brain, Change Your Life and the director of the Amen Clinics—has seen SPECT scans on the brains of thousands of patients over the years and says, “the prettiest brains I’ve ever seen have been on Ginkgo biloba!”
Research shows that regular exercise can actually increase brain size. Researchers used MRIs to look at the brains of 60 volunteers. Then they divided the volunteers into two groups. One group went into an aerobics program, the other into a “toning and stretching” program. After six months, the aerobic exercises had increased volume in both the white matter of their brains (the neurons) and the grey matter (the interconnections, which act like telephone wires between the neurons).
Other research has found those who don’t exercise are three times more likely to develop dementia.
Avoid the No. 1 Brain Shrinker
An important structure in the brain essential to memory, called the hippocampus, actually shrinks as a result of stress. The total number of cells decreases, and the existing cells shrink. (The hippocampus is one of the first regions to suffer damage in Alzheimer’s disease.)
Ways to reduce stress are as easy to find as your own bathroom. A soak in a warm bath works wonders. Ditto for lying in bed and reading a book that has nothing to do with work.
Whatever you choose, do something. Ultimately the health of your brain depends on it.
Did you know…
- Blueberries help neurons in the brain communicate with one another more effectively.
- Ginkgo biloba can increase the functional activity of the brain—both in animals and humans.