“Senior moments.” We’ve all heard of them, or even experienced a few ourselves – those small mental glitches that are annoying, but not significant enough to interfere with daily life. Inevitably, normal aging brings some loss in cognitive function – usually involving lapses in memory, a reduced ability to maintain focus, and decreased problem-solving capacity. But, it’s the more serious issues surrounding dementia that are life-threatening AND avoidable.
What are the primary causes of unwanted cognitive decline?
For starters, oxidative stress and inflammation are truly enemies from within the body. Although the brain naturally loses volume and efficiency due to aging, certain factors can accelerate the process. The brain’s high concentrations of phospholipids make it especially susceptible to oxidative stress, which damages DNA and destroys neurons.
And, as the damage from free radicals increases, the body simultaneously loses some of its ability to protect itself. Patients with neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease tend to have lower blood levels of powerful natural antioxidants – such as glutathione – that would normally be helping to neutralizing oxidative damage.
Fact: Chronic (low-level) inflammation can take a toll on brain health.
The blood-brain barrier is designed to prevent the infiltration of inflammatory substances. But factors such as obesity, cigarette smoking, disrupted sleep patterns and poor dietary habits compromise its integrity, allowing irritants to enter the brain and stimulate inflammatory cytokines. These pro-inflammatory molecules damage and destroy neurons, while interfering with the generation of new ones.
Plunging hormones threaten brain health
Decreasing levels of estrogen, testosterone, DHEA and pregnenolone also affect the brain, with decreases and imbalances affecting mood and cognitive function. Studies have shown that reduced levels of the adrenal hormone DHEA are tied to decreasing cognitive performance.
The good news is that supplementation may help reverse the loss in function. In one clinical trial, six months of supplementing with 25 mgs a day of DHEA improved cognitive function and verbal fluency in aging women.
Hypertension, diabetes and obesity speed up cognitive decline
Chronic high blood pressure causes small capillaries throughout the brain to break down, with corresponding loss of function. In one 38-year-long study, subjects with systolic blood pressure over 140 mm/Hg performed consistently less well on tests of mental acuity than participants with normal blood pressure.
However, treating high blood pressure can help slow the onset of cognitive decline and dementia. In one study of 1800 people, participants treating their high blood pressure were less likely to have dementia at the beginning of the study, and less likely to develop it throughout. For optimal lifelong brain function, experts advise striving for readings of 115 over 75 mm/Hg. Poorly controlled blood sugars are linked with damage to nerve cells in the brain, so it’s not surprising that diabetes and insulin resistance are associated with decreased brain volume and a higher incidence of dementia. People with diabetic retinopathy – a complication of diabetes – have been found to be twice as likely to have mild cognitive impairment.
Being overweight can also affect the brain. There is an association between body fat and overall brain volume and cognition – as body weight increases, brain volume drops and cognitive function worsens. Abdominal fat, in particular, is associated with deteriorating brain structure.
And obesity in mid-life is strongly associated with later-life dementia. In one study of over 1,000 people, subjects with the largest waist diameters at baseline were three times more likely to develop dementia over the following 30 years.
Social and emotional factors can negatively affect the brain
Loneliness, isolation, depression and stress are closely correlated with cognitive impairment, with even low-level anxiety causing significant drops in mental function. Seeking treatment for depression and anxiety, undertaking mentally challenging activities and finding constructive ways to deal with stress can all help protect against loss of mental capabilities. Staying fit can also promote mental acuity. Physical activity increases levels of neurotrophic factors, a group of molecules which enhance cognitive function by promoting the growth and survival of neurons.
Nutritional interventions that improve brain function
In a study published in 2009 in Archives of Neurology, researchers concluded that the Mediterranean diet let to a reduced risk of cognitive impairment Alzheimer’s disease. When it comes to slowing normal age-related cognitive decline, natural health experts and mainstream physicians alike tend to agree on the virtues of this healthy diet. Many of its staples – including olive oil, wild-caught fish, vividly-colored fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds – offer healthy amounts of mono and polyunsaturated fats, antioxidant micronutrients, and dietary fiber.
You can indulge – but, be smart about it
While excessive drinking hinders cognition, up to two drinks a day may actually enhance it. One study showed that those who regularly drank a moderate amount of red wine scored better than non-drinkers on cognitive performance tests. Although, drinking alcohol should not be considered a ‘necessity’ for brain health. And moderate consumption of caffeinated coffee, which contains antioxidants and neuroprotective compounds, may also help preserve mental sharpness. In one study, drinking three cups of coffee a day was associated with a 4.3-fold slower rate of cognitive decline. Of course, the same rule should apply – coffee is NOT a necessity for better brain function.
Nutritional supplements that enhance brain function
A wide range of natural substances are believed to help slow mental aging. Omega-3 supplements – in the form of fish or flaxseed oil – support healthy brain function, while wild green oat extract has been shown in studies to enhance dopamine transmission and improve cognitive function. Polyphenols such as resveratrol from grapes, catechins from green tea and anthocyanins from blueberries all help to neutralize free radicals that cause oxidative damage to the brain. Magnesium, in the form of magnesium-L-threonate, has been shown to boost brain magnesium levels – which is important because Alzheimer’s disease is associated with magnesium deficit. The mineral may also enhance the clearance from the brain of amyloid-beta proteins, which play a role in cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease.
Finally, saffron, a cooking spice and flavoring agent, was shown in a clinical trial to be as effective as the prescription drug Aricept in slowing the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. As we age, some loss of mental function is unavoidable. However, making wise lifestyle choices can help you apply the brakes, significantly slowing the process.
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