What We Can Do to Preserve Cognitive Health

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September 18, 2017
What We Can Do to Preserve Cognitive Health
by Darra McMullen,
Women’s Health Network Writer/Researcher

Note:  Regular readers of this blog may have wondered, “What happened to Part 3 of the August topics on vaccines, travel tips, and foot health?”.  The short answer, in two words, is Hurricane Harvey.  The third installment of the August story was due to be published the last week of August.  Unfortunately, this writer was too busy securing property and getting ready for Harvey’s arrival to submit the final installment of that health topic.

Harvey may have delayed a whole lot of everyone’s progress, but the hurricane will not stop this blog from covering the health subjects outlined for the year.  To get “back on track”, we’ll look at Alzheimer’s disease in September and breast cancer in October.  The foot health story will appear before year’s end, probably during the second half of November.  Early November is devoted to diabetes awareness, prevention, and treatment.  Because diabetes is one of many factors that can adversely affect foot health, mid to late November, following the diabetes article, seems like a logical time to run the foot health story.

Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias:

Let’s get started on this month’s topic, Alzheimer’s disease, which promises to be a catastrophic health care and financial event for the United States, not to mention the untold personal and emotional tolls suffered by Alzheimer’s victims and their families.  As our country’s inhabitants age, they are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s or some other type of dementia as the years roll past.  At present, there is no cure and no sure-fire, bullet proof way to prevent dementia either.  There are some things we should do (and some we should not) to help reduce our risk of any dementia and to help delay onset or slow the progression of a dementia condition.  For now, looking out for our cognitive health is about all we can do with no cure or definite preventive in sight.  For the time being, we should focus on maximizing brain health and making the “dos” and “don’ts” of good cognitive function a part of our everyday lives until brain research can tell us more about Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.

The importance of sleep in dementia risk:

We’ll examine several areas where healthy habits can help preserve brain function for as long as possible.  To begin, let’s take a look at sleep.  Sleep deprivation not only leads to fuzzy thinking the next day, but may also leave the brain especially vulnerable to protein buildups linked to Alzheimer’s.  Lack of sleep is a stressor on the body, and chronic stress of any kind is also linked to more poorly functioning brains.  As much as practically possible, attempt to reduce or eliminate sleep disruptors from your life.

Exercise and the risk of dementia:

Lack of exercise is another unhealthy habit that can damage the brain.  A lack of exercise leads to poorer blood circulation throughout the body, including the brain.  Conversely, regular activity promotes blood circulation, which helps keep the brain’s neurons alive and functioning better.  Exercise helps reduce insulin resistance and inflammation, both of which are linked to memory loss and poorer overall brain function.  A combination of cardiovascular exercise and weight training is the best recipe for fighting insulin resistance and inflammation; however, either one by itself is better than no exercise at all.

Although a formal exercise routine is best, everyday things can bring big benefits to cognitive health.  Simple walking, housework, gardening, dancing, yoga, or anything that keeps a person active and moving is helpful toward keeping the mind sharp.

Dementia risk and chronic stress:

Another negative component to our daily lives that can hinder brain function is chronic stress.  Chronic emotional stress can cause the hippocampus to shrink and can set off the progression of mild cognitive impairment into full dementia.  If much of life is filled with tension, fear, anger, or simply too much multi-tasking, look for ways to reduce stress by simplifying life, participating in meditation, breathing exercises, yoga, or relaxing activities.  If anxiety or other emotional problems are at the forefront of daily life, seek professional help.  Medication and/or behavioral therapy or talk therapy may help reduce stress levels and improve quality of life now, as well as improve future brain function later in life.

Isolated individuals and dementia risk:

An additional risk factor for developing dementia is isolation.  Socially active adults aged 65 and older were a full 70% less likely to develop dementia than less socially engaged peers, according to a 2011 study conducted at Rush University.  Avoiding isolation doesn’t have to be complicated; simple, everyday activities such as visiting with friends and family, volunteering, attending religious services, or even just eating out at restaurants can be sufficient social interaction to keep the brain performing better and help hold off dementia.

Other factors influencing dementia risk:

There are many other factors that can influence brain function and memory.  Although it would be impossible to list them all here in the space of one relatively short article, we can take a look at a few more issues that can influence brain performance, for better or worse.  That’s not to say that these factors can “cause” or “cure” Alzheimer’s disease (or any other dementia), but rather to look at these factors as some of the means by which we can improve brain function and help our brains resist dementia in its various forms.


One important factor for brain health is staying hydrated.  Even mild dehydration can cause temporary fuzzy thinking and poor decision-making.  Staying in a constant state of dehydration for years, as some people do, can adversely affect the brain (and body) in the long-term.  Make a point of keeping water with you and sipping it throughout the day.  If you start to feel mentally unclear, weak, or hungry, reach for the water first before eating and see if you feel better or more mentally sharp after the H2O has had a chance to take effect.

Cognitive stimulation in various forms:

Another important factor for maintaining memory and mental acuity is staying cognitively stimulated by new information, novel situations, and challenging skill development.  Anything that produces a new and/or different cognitive response will help the brain stay in its best condition.  Learning a new physical skill, a new language, or deeply thinking about an unfamiliar subject are just a few examples of activities that can create new neuronal pathways in the brain.  Even simple, common tasks can be made to challenge the brain.  Taking a new route to work would be one such example of “brain exercise”, as would changing up your personal errand schedule to go to different places at new times of day.

Try writing down your notes or correspondence on paper with a pen, pencil, or other writing instrument.  The act of actually writing by hand has been shown by repeated scientific studies to be quite helpful to memory, creativity, and information processing in the brain, making neuronal connections that simply don’t happen as effectively when words are typed on a keyboard or keypad.

On a related topic, better brain health has been found recently in “bookworm” type adults.  Memory and thinking tests were given to approximately 300 adults.  The test results showed that those people who participated in regular reading, writing, and similar activities throughout their lives enjoyed a 32% lower rate of memory decline than those persons who did not participate in “bookish” activities.  Reading is known to help strengthen nerve pathways in the cerebral cortex, making it more resistant to cognitive decline.

The immediately preceding information concerning “bookworm” adults comes from Robert Wilson, PhD, a senior neuropsychologist at Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago, Illinois.

Nutritional considerations and dementia risk:

A number of nutritionally related factors influencing dementia have been in the news over the past few years.  We’ll take a look at some of them now.

•  Research examining the dietary and memory-test data of nearly 1,400 adults (with an average age of 61) over a three to ten-year period concluded that people whose diets contained the highest levels of choline performed better on memory tests than those individuals who consumed the least choline.  The nutrient, choline, is a precursor to a brain chemical, acetylcholine, which plays an important role in cognition. (Source: Rhoda Au, PhD, associate professor of neurology, Boston University School of Medicine)

Good dietary sources of choline are eggs, poultry, saltwater fish, liver, and kidney beans.  Choline is available also in capsule supplement form at health food stores.

•  A number of vitamins, minerals, and other dietary supplements have been in the news lately, linked to improved brain function.  The B vitamins, folic acid, B6, and B12, vitamin D-3, vitamin K-2, vitamin E (as mixed tocopherols and tocotrienols), the minerals selenium, magnesium, and zinc, omega-3 fatty acids, coenzyme Q10, alpha-lipoic acid, probiotics, and curcumin are all on the “brain friendly” list of nutrients, and are indeed recommended by Dale Bredesen, MD, director of the Mary S. Easton Center for Alzheimer’s Disease Research at the David Geffen School of Medicine, UCLA.  Check with your doctor for specific dosages.

•  Canadian research that was noted recently in Woman’s World magazine (8/7/17) described the importance of beta-carotene to brain health.  Beta-carotene nourishes and energizes brain nerves and helps to prevent plaque buildup in blood vessels of the brain.  The study involved feeding ½ cup of sweet potatoes, a top natural source of the nutrient, to study participants daily.  Results showed a dramatic improvement in brain aging and related issues like stroke and dementia, with risk reduction cut by as much as 45%.  Beta-carotene can be found in orange colored produce like carrots, pumpkins, and sweet potatoes.  Beta-carotene is also available in supplement form, but be careful with potentially overdose amounts, which can be serious.  Seek professional medical guidance on safe dosages for your situation.  Diabetics and others with particular health conditions have to be especially careful with beta-carotene supplements.

•  A recent scientific study reported that eating a little more than two cups daily of grapes can help reverse early memory loss and reduce Alzheimer’s risk.  The polyphenols in grapes are thought to be the “active ingredient”.  Polyphenols improve blood flow and reduce inflammation, and as such, have been recommended for years by natural medicine doctors to improve heart health.  Now polyphenols are being recognized for also boosting the production of a key memory compound needed by the brain for proper function.

Dementia risk and retirement age:

Lastly, let’s look at one other factor that can play into risk for dementia – retirement age.  According to a very large study of 400,000 retired French workers, delaying retirement may protect the brain.  For each additional year that a person worked before retiring, dementia risk dropped by 3%, meaning that someone who retired at age 60 could well have a 15% greater chance of developing dementia than a person who chose to retire at age 65. (Source: National Institute of Health and Medical Research; Paris, France)

The basic theory from this research is that the mental stimulation of work and the social ties of the workplace help to keep the brain healthy for longer.

People choosing to retire at an “early” age are especially encouraged to stay mentally, physically, and socially stimulated in other ways beyond formal work life – although this is sound advice for any one of any age at retirement.

Final thoughts:

In summary, Alzheimer’s disease and dementias in general have multi-faceted causes and treatments, and though we have no “cure” for these dreadful dementia conditions, there is a lot we can do to protect our own and our loved ones’ brains into the future, while we wait for fascinating research to lead us to definitive causes, preventives, and cures.


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