Of all the unwanted changes in health associated with aging, one of the most devastating is the decline in cognitive function. The one disease that is feared more than all others (including cancer) is Alzheimer’s. People dread the loss of independence arising from declining mental capacity even more than they dread declining physical ability. Without question, our brain is our single greatest asset because our health and vitality actually begins in the brain–the “control tower” responsible for directing the operations of our entire body so it easy to see how the health of our brain is every bit as important as the health of our heart. All healthcare should take a “head-first” approach yet it so often is the very last place we look, if at all. Unless we find a way to grow new brain cells to replace those that are dying, we can’t enjoy a long life.
Factors that underlie and lead to the loss of brain tissue include oxidative stress, chronic inflammation, mitochondrial dysfunction,* hormone deficiency, impaired microcirculation to the brain, and toxic protein aggregates (amyloid-beta and tau) that build up around the brain’s synapses preventing the vital flow of neurotransmitters. An aggressive and comprehensive approach with a doctor who specializes in holistic healing approaches to cognitive function may give you the ability to help repair a deteriorating brain.
[The information in this article should not be viewed as medical advice as we are not medical professionals. We are shareing information and recommendations from and based on scientific publications and studies that are enumerated in the article’s endnotes. As always, when beginning any new program dedicated to health and which is new for you, first consult your physician.]
There is an increasing awareness of the importance of nutrition, particularly omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (n-3 PUFA), for optimal brain development and function. Nutrition plays a critical role in mental health since the brain relies on both macro- and micronutrients for development and functioning. A lack of these fatty acids has been implicated in a number of mental health conditions over the lifespan, from developmental disorders and mental retardation in childhood, to depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder, stress, hostility and aggression in adulthood, and cognitive decline, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in late adulthood.
Omega-3s are important components of the membranes that surround each cell in your body. Some—but not all—research shows that people who consume more Omega-3s from food such as fish, fish oil, flaxseed and Omega-3 dietary supplements may have a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and other problems with cognitive function.
There are three main types of Omega-3 fatty acids: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). ALA is found mainly in plant oils like flaxseed, soybean, and canola. DHA and EPA are found in fish and other seafood.
ALA is an essential fatty acid meaning that your body can’t manufacture it so you must get it from the foods and beverages you consume. Your body is able to convert some ALA into EPA and then to DHA but only in very small amounts, therefore getting EPA and DHA from foods (and dietary supplements) is the only practical way to increase levels of these Omega-3 fatty acids in your body.
DHA levels are especially high in the retina of the eye, the brain, and sperm cells. Omega-3s also provide calories to give your body energy and have many functions in your heart, blood vessels, lungs, immune and endocrine systems (the network of hormone-producing glands).
Walking and other forms of exercise encourage your brain to release endorphins—a neurochemical that boosts mental health, decreases your sensitivity to stress and pain, and even sometimes induces a state of euphoria. Getting the body moving can help lower the incidence of depression and improve soverall cognitive function.
Walking releases the protein known as BDNF. Science Daily explains that Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) is a protein "essential for neuronal development and survival, synaptic plasticity, and cognitive function." Impairment of BDNF is actually associated with neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer's Disease.
One study published in January 2018 found that walking for thirty minutes at a moderate rate increased the production of BDNF in the brains of post-stroke patients which may indicate that walking somewhat briskly could be key to maintaining a healthy brain and mind.
Walking has been shown to clear up cognitive haze. NPR reported that going for a walk, even briefly, can increase the size of your hippocampus—the region of your brain that plays a critical role in forming and storing memories and the associated feelings that pair up with those memories.
Walking increases blood flow to the brain and improves creativity. A 2014 Stanford University study found that walking increased a person's "creative output" by an average of 60 percent.
In addition to keeping the brain lubricated with essential fatty acids, nourishing the brain and body with lots of plant-based and healthy foods, exercising the body with adequate amounts and types of exercises, we can directly exercise the brain to help it stay sharp and bright.
• Learn to play a musical instrument, learn a new language or review or relearn algebra no matter what age you are. Researchers have found that learning to play a musical instrument can enhance verbal memory, spatial reasoning and literacy skills. Playing an instrument makes you use both sides of your brain, thereby strengthening memory power. The fine motor skills required to play an instrument stimulate activity throughout the brain.
• Get your brain used to learning moderately complicated software on your computer. See it as a challenge!
• Practice Tai Chi regardless of age. Tai Chi is a gentle, low impact ancient Chinese flowing form of meditative movement and mind-body exercise. It improves balance, strength, and flexibility and reduces stress and anxiety. A study published in the Journal of Neuroimaging proves that Tai Chi may promote neuroplasticity, the generation of new neurons, or protect neurons from the normal process of aging.
• Get meditating to strengthen the neuroplasticity** of your brain. It may help create the growth of new connections and neurons. The study referenced below showed alterations in patterns of brain function which were scientifically assessed using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Meditation was found to have a positive impact on attention. The researchers were able to measure alterations in amplitude and synchrony of high frequency oscillations in the brain indicating that meditation plays an important role in connectivity among the widespread circuitry in the brain.
Like with anything, if we don’t use it, we lose it. We can’t just expect any “muscle” of our body to stay in shape without putting it through its paces, so to speak. Stay engaged in life. As we advance in age, we have a whole treasure trove of wisdom and knowledge to share. It’s the very time we should be contributing and sharing that knowledge rather than withdrawing from life and withering in stature, health and cognitive function.
* dysfunction of the organelles (specialized subunits within a cell that have a specific function) that generate energy for the cell. Mitochondria are found in every cell of the human body except red blood cells, and convert the energy of food molecules into the ATP (Adenosine triphosphate: a complex organic chemical that provides energy to drive many processes in living cells, e.g. muscle contraction, nerve impulse propagation, and chemical synthesis) that powers most cell functions.
** a term that is used to describe the brain changes that occur in response to experience
Davidson, Richard J, and Antoine Lutz. “Buddha's Brain: Neuroplasticity and Meditation.” IEEE Signal Processing Magazine, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 1 Jan. 2008, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2944261/.
Sinn, Natalie, et al. “Oiling the Brain: a Review of Randomized Controlled Trials of Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Psychopathology across the Lifespan.” Nutrients, Molecular Diversity Preservation International, Feb. 2010, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3257637/.
“Office of Dietary Supplements - Omega-3 Fatty Acids.” NIH Office of Dietary Supplements, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-Consumer/.
Stansfield, Kirstie H, et al. “Dysregulation of BDNF-TrkB Signaling in Developing Hippocampal Neurons by Pb(2+): Implications for an Environmental Basis of Neurodevelopmental Disorders.” Toxicological Sciences : an Official Journal of the Society of Toxicology, Oxford University Press, May 2012, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22345308.
Morais, Viviane Aparecida Carvalho de, et al. “A Single Session of Moderate Intensity Walking Increases Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) in the Chronic Post-Stroke Patients.” Topics in Stroke Rehabilitation, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Jan. 2018, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29078742.
“Tai Chi May Improve Brain Health and Muscle Recovery.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/urban-survival/201804/tai-chi-may-improve-brain-health-and-muscle-recovery.
Stanford University. “Stanford Study Finds Walking Improves Creativity.” Stanford News, 24 Apr. 2014, news.stanford.edu/2014/04/24/walking-vs-sitting-042414/.