Modern life is very demanding for our brains. We live busy lives, multitasking throughout our working days and home life, often relying on our brains to function at full speed in tasks such as concentration, memory, verbal skills, not to mention the myriad roles the brain plays in orchestrating healthy functioning of our bodies.
But what happens when our brains begin to age? All to often we notice a change in cognitive function – our ability to retain information, remember words or solve problems. What are the key issues and risk factors for this cognitive decline and how can we safeguard our brains for many decades of healthy function?
Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI)
Cognitive decline causes slight but noticeable and measurable decline in cognitive abilities including memory and thinking skills. During the early stages these changes are not severe enough to interfere with everyday life or independent function but people with MCI (mild cognitive impairment) have been shown to be more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias than people without MCIs.
Generally speaking, symptoms include forgetting important information that would previously have easily have been retained, e.g. remembering future appointments, recalling past conversations or recent events (known as amnestic MCI). Thinking skills may also be affected including the ability to make sound decisions, judge the time or sequence of steps to complete a complex task or, or visual perception (non-amnestic MCI). The ability to multitask is also diminished and some people with MCI you may also experience depression, anxiety, apathy, irritability and aggression.
So how does MCI start? This condition stems from shrinking of parts of the brain involved in cognition, namely the frontal lobe, especially the prefrontal cortex; the medial temporal lobe, especially the hippocampus; and the cerebellum, though this appears to only occur in ageing males. White matter in the brain (i.e. nerve pathways) also degrades, leading to disorganised brain networks and reduced production of chemical neurotransmitters like GABA and also dopamine, both important for learning and memory.
What are the risk factors for developing MCI?
Major non-modifiable risk factors include age, gender and familial history. Age is the biggest factor in developing MCI and dementias though there are also familial history traits in some cases. Gender may also play a role with 65% people living with dementia (estimated at 850,000) in UK being women.
However, there are many modifiable risk factors that can combine to affect cognitive health including:
- Gut microbiota
- Nutrient status, e.g. low Vitamin D levels
- Health status, e.g. cardiometabolic risk factors increase risk of MCI and dementias including diabetes mellitus, hypercholesterolemia, hypertension, metabolic syndrome, obesity, vascular disease, high homocysteine
- Lifestyle and activity, e.g. insomnia, obstructive sleep apnoea, chronic stress (cortisol levels have also been linked to brain health with chronic stress), sedentary behaviour, social isolation
- Environment, e.g. smoking, medications and toxin exposure
On a whole-systems level these risk factors combine to translate into chronic inflammation, aberrant hormonal patterns and brain vascular changes affecting neurotransmitter levels, cognitive processing, regional brain structure and function. In short, there’s plenty that we can all be doing to make changes in our lives to support a healthy brain as we age!
Supporting brain health
We can’t do much about advancing years but we can make modifiable changes to the ageing process, support a healthy balance of gut microbiota and keep inflammation under control. In fact, around a third of a person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease (advanced stages of MCI) may be due to modifiable lifestyle factors. For example, two studies of 3,400 people followed their sleep patterns for more than 2 decades and those who suffered from nightmares and insomnia in middle age were more likely to experience cognitive impairments in old age.
To improve sleep quality and the other modifiable MCI risk factors consider:
- Dietary changes – reduce refine sugars and processed foods, increase vegetable intake, minimise caffeine and alcohol, keep hydrated
- Lifestyle changes – daily activity including aerobic and resistance training, stop smoking, manage stress, e.g. meditation and mindfulness
Starting these changes early (aged 30-40s) will support long-term healthy cognitive neural networks and brain health. A personalised lifestyle approach, rather than just relying on drug monotherapies, is more appropriate to supporting the many biochemical pathways and mechanisms that underpin health brain function.
Nutrition and brain health
So how much of a role does nutrition play in keeping the brain healthy?
Nutrition plays a huge role in brain health. Processed foods and those high in saturated fats and refined sugar, chronic caffeine and or/ soda consumption and alcohol can all impair short and long-term brain function, affect neurotransmitter levels and damage neuronal networks.
Numerous studies now demonstrate a link between pro-inflammatory foods and diets and the increased risk of developing MCI and dementias. In part, this is due to the health of the gut and the interaction between the gut microbiota and brain function. There are some very interesting studies that demonstrate this key link between diet and cognitive impairment where consumption of a Western Diet (WD) that is high in saturated fat and added sugars negatively impacts cognitive function, particularly mnemonic processes that rely on the integrity of the brain region that involves memory, i.e. the hippocampus., This also has huge implications for younger generations and the prevalence projections of dementia in the UK – there are currently 850,000 diagnosed cases of dementia in the UK predicted to rise to 1,000,000 cases in 2020 and 2,000,000 cases in 2050!
Anti-inflammatory diets high in vegetables and low in refined carbohydrates, rich in essential fats and lean protein are recommended for a healthy body and mind. Dr Dale Bredesen, a pioneering doctor in the brain health arena, is leading the way in understanding the role the diet and nutrition, and tailoring individualised programmes, plays in reversing cognitive impairment and even Alzheimer’s disease and dementias.
His protocol advocates frequent consumption of vegetables including cruciferous vegetables, onions, sweet potatoes, beetroot, some fruits including grapefruit and avocado, olive oil, MCT (coconut oil), organic pasture raised eggs, green tea and wild caught fish; reducing consumption of coffee, meat, legumes, nightshade vegetables, non-tropical fruits like berries and starchy veg like peas; and avoid dairy, high glycaemic fruits, gluten, grains, high mercury fish, processed foods and simple carbohydrates.
Supplements and brain health
There are many supplements you can consider over and above the diet to support a healthy brain but the following supplements are suggested for maintaining healthy cognition:
- Essential fatty acids in terms of omega 3 EPA and DHA, which can be found in high potency fish oils or krill oil.
- Phospholipids such as those found in lecithin powders. Phosphatidyl serine can be used separately to boost memory function.
- B vitamins including Vitamin B12, which should be checked, especially if you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet.
- Vitamin D3 during the winter months in the UK – levels should be tested before supplementation.
- Gut support through Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria probiotics and Saccharomyces boulardii
It doesn’t matter what age you are, you can always protect and support your brain health through your diet and approach to life so start making a difference to your memory today! There are other nutrients and supplements, including curcumin, Vitamin D and antioxidants, that may also protect and support a healthy brain but the key to personalise your plan to you own health requirements. If you want any more nutritional information then please ring the Nutrigold free technical line on 0800 233 5675.
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