By Paulette Lambert, RD, CDE
Director of Nutrition
California Health & Longevity Institute
Spend some time with the 50-plus age group and it becomes clear that memory and brain function are hot topics. With many baby boomers encountering changes in their brain function—causing concern, and, let’s face it, amusement, at times— it is not surprising that boomers are looking for ways to hold on to their memory and increase cognitive ability.
Being vital until the end of life is something that everyone wishes for but not all of us are lucky enough to experience. According to the Alzheimer’s Association (alz.org), 44 percent of Americans between the ages of 75 and 84 have dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, and by age 85 that number goes up to 50 percent. Those numbers are driving a whole new market of brain-enhancing health products, from supplements to video games, all aiming to increase cognitive ability. But will this do us any good? Are there proactive steps we can take to stop the deterioration of the brain as we age?
According to mounting evidence in the field of neuroscience, the answer appears to be yes. Research is revealing that the aging brain actually has more capacity to change and adapt than was previously thought. According to Sandra Bond Chapman, PhD, founder and chief director at the Center for BrainHealth in Dallas, Texas, it appears that the brain continues to develop neural pathways to adapt to new experiences, learn new information, and create new memories.1 In fact, studies show that the brain can actually get smarter as we age: the more new learning experiences we have, the more neural pathways we create, which means we can actually stockpile a larger network of neurons that can markedly slow down the process of cognitive decline. The more we develop in the brain now, the fewer years of decline we experience down the road.
Research conducted by the Center for Brain Health shows that older brains can be more receptive to pattern recognition, judgment, and accumulation of knowledge and experience, giving those over 50 an advantage over younger brains if—and that is a big if—the physical structure of the brain is not in decline.2 Physical decline of the brain, meaning the actual shrinkage and deterioration that begins in our forties, corresponds with cognitive decline. All of this is to say that brain health needs to be a priority for those heading into their forties and fifties to reap the most significant rewards.
The goal is to decrease stress on the brain, which breaks down brain function, and to build new neural pathways through mental stimulation. The good news is that building better brain health in your everyday life is easier than you might think.
All the information we are learning about how significant a role basic life functions—the way you eat, sleep, and move—play in maintaining brain health and preventing chronic health conditions like diabetes and heart disease emphasizes the value of living a healthy lifestyle.
Here are six lifestyle factors that can have an impact on brain health.
The takeaway: we do not need to slow down mentally due to age. We can play a role in boosting our brain health, and the sooner we start thinking about preserving our brain, the better. Cognitive “resurrection” can make us stronger, smarter, and more decisive. By focusing on a healthy lifestyle that includes diet, exercise, sleep, and relaxation, we can improve our overall well-being and enjoy good health for years to come.
1. What Is Plasticity? Center for Brain Health website. Available at http://www.brainhealth.utdallas.edu/blog_page/what-is-plasticity. Accessed March 21, 2014.
2. Study Finds Brain Training Enhances Brain Health of Adults Over 50. Center for Brain Health website. Available at http://www.brainhealth. utdallas.edu/blog_page/study-finds-braintraining-enhances-brain-health-of-adults-over-50. Accessed March 21, 2014.
3. Solfrizzi V, Panza F, Frisardi V, et al. Diet and Alzheimer’s disease risk factors or prevention:The current evidence. Expert Review of Neurotherapeutics. 2011;11(5):677-708.
4. Roberts RO , Roberts LA , Geda YE , et al. Relative intake of macronutrients impacts risk of mild cognitive impairment or dementia. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. 2012;32(2):329-39. doi: 10.3233/JAD -2012-120862.
5. Singh-Manoux A, Czernichow S, Elbaz A, et al. Obesity phenotypes in midlife and cognition in early old age: The Whitehall II cohort study. Neurology. 2010; 79(8):755-62. doi: 10.1212/WNL .0b013e3182661f63.
6. De la Monte SM, Re E, Longato L, Tong M. Dysfunctional pro-ceramide, ER stress, and insulin/IGF signaling networks with progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. 2012;30(suppl. 2): S231-S269.
7. Fitzpatrick AL , Kuller LH , Lopez OL , et al. Midlife and late-life obesity and the risk of dementia. Archives of Neurology. 2009;66(3):336-42. doi: 10.1001/archneurol.2008.582.
Paulette Lambert, RD, CDE, is director of nutrition for California Health & Longevity Institute, located within Four Seasons Hotel Westlake Village (chli.com). With more than 27 years of private practice after an extensive clinical education, Lambert has wide-ranging experience in clinical nutrition and the development of individualized dietary plans.
More at: awoamanshealth.com
Studies show that it is not one magic food but a combination of foods that helps boost brain health. The following recommendations, based on the Mediterranean diet, are a good guideline for head-healthy eating.