Taking Action to Preserve Brain Health

With the growing prevalence of conditions such as Alzheimer's disease, many people are concerned about how to keep what they've got.  On August 9th, Registered Holistic Nutritionist Catherine Roe spoke to us about the modifiable risk factors for brain health and shared tips on how to stay sharp.
Catherine identified the following as modifiable sources of risk with respect to brain health:
  • Diet
  • Weight
  • Sleep
  • Activity
  • Exposure to sunlight
  • Stress
  • Brain Stimulation
  • Smoking
  • Alcohol consumption
Catherine quoted nutritionist Michael Pollan's famous advice:
                    Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants.
In communities where longevity is common, people eat less - about 80% of what it would take to feel full.  This practice is credited with a number of health benefits, including less arthritis and better brain health.
Catherine indicated most people gravitate to about 16 foods, around which they construct their usual diet.  This is not enough variety to ensure complete nutrition.  Some of the nutrients that are most associated with brain health include antioxidants, found in berries and dark leafy greens, and omega 3 fatty acids, found in whole grains and cold water fish, such as salmon.  While animal proteins provide all the essential amino acids, they are also a significant source of homocysteine, a pro-inflammatory amino acid associated with heart disease and Alzheimer's disease.  Another nutrient that should be avoided is the fat known as "trans fat", for the same reasons one should limit homocysteine intake.
Since increased abdominal girth is associated with increased risk of Alzheimer's disease, maintaining a healthy weight is considered to be protective.
Memory consolidation occurs during sleep, making good sleep an essential protective factor.  Tips for promoting good sleep include avoiding exposure to screens (TV, computer, phone) 60 minutes before bedtime, keeping the bedroom dark and cool, and reserving the bedroom for sleep and intimacy.
Activity is as important as proper rest with respect to brain health.  Research shows that those who engage in regular exercise experience better blood flow and oxygenation in their brains.  This appears to have positive effects on memory and cognitive responses.  While the goal should be 30 minutes of aerobic exercise, which could be walking, 4 times per week, as little as 10 minutes per day can make a difference.
Our minds do not distinguish between the threat of imminent danger and perceived threats, causing increases in the stress hormone cortisol as a result in both instances.  Chronic cortisol elevation is associated with many health problems, including increased risk of dementia.  While it's not always possible to make stressful situations go away, there are easy things we can do to lessen their health impact, such as taking deep breaths multiple times per day, being mindful through meditation or prayer, and laughing.
Each of these areas: diet, activity, sleep and stress management, is a factor for health generally.  Factors that are more specifically tied to Alzheimer's disease include brain stimulation, smoking and alcohol.
While smoking is a definite no-no, Catherine noted the situation with alcohol is much less clear because complete abstinence and over-consumption increase risk but moderate consumption (e.g. 2 alcoholic drinks per day) reduces it.
Brain stimulation involves deliberately challenging your brain on a regular basis.  Sources of brain stimulation can include games such as chess or bridge where memory and planning are needed, or using your non-dominant hand to perform routing tasks such as brushing your teeth, because your mind must focus more intently on performing this familiar task in a different way.
Finally, Catherine shared a recipe (below) she calls "Nutrition for the Noggin":