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Tips for Adopting a Brain-Healthy Lifestyle

February 26, 2017
Mary Kay

Ask most adults if they’re worried about losing cognitive capacity as they grow older, and you’ll hear an astounding yes…and with good reason. Alzheimer’s disease now affects some 5.4 million Americans and has become the third leading cause of death in the US. Moreover, a woman’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease now exceeds her risk of developing breast cancer, and equally concerning is the fact that this disease is showing up in younger people. While this all sounds grim, leading doctors and researchers say cognitive decline can be halted...even reversed, simply by adopting a brain-healthy lifestyle.

The Brain-Health Pioneers

If you don’t know who the leading researchers are in the field of brain function and disease, here are three you should know about. First, Dr. Daniel Amen, an American psychiatrist, brain disorder specialist, Director of the Amen Clinics and 10 times New York Times bestselling author. He’s the first doctor to use brain scans to distinguish a healthy from unhealthy brain, and he’s known for helping people increase their ‘brain reserve’. He says every person is born with a reserve…a cushion of healthy brain tissue that enables us to deal with the unexpected stresses that come our way. The more reserve we have, the more resilient we are in times of trouble. The less reserve, the more vulnerable we are. Today, however, there are lot of things that deplete a person’s brain reserve. Brain injuries, obviously. But after that, chronic stress, too much caffeine, alcohol, drugs, smoking, and a lousy diet all kill cells in the memory centers of the brain. Also, any type of microbiome imbalance and a body overwhelmed with too many environmental toxins can hurt the brain. In fact, he says the biggest reason the brain starts to malfunction is because of our lifestyle choices…what we eat and the resulting inflammation those things do to the body. This is why illnesses like Alzheimer’s, autism and ADHD have been rising steadily among the young. In short, if you’re doing things that hurt the body, you’re probably hurting the brain too.

That leads me to the second researcher…Professor Melissa Schilling. What you need to know about her is she’s not a medical doctor. She’s a professor at New York University Stern School of Business, and the only non-neurologist who found a connection between diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease, which was published in the very prestigious, The Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease in April 2016 [1]. Why did a business intellectual become interested in brain function? She had a friend who developed multiple sclerosis, and she wanted to know what were the latest theories and treatments in an effort to help her.

With this in mind, she did a large-scale review across disciplines of hundreds of published articles and accidentally discovered that hyperinsulinemia, which is most often associated with prediabetes (aka early or undiagnosed diabetes) was responsible for almost half of all cases of Alzheimer’s disease. Specifically, she noticed that insulin upregulates the expression of insulin-degrading enzyme (IDE) and that IDE plays a role in breaking down Aβ (the main component of the amyloid plaques found in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients). In short, when that system malfunctions, it can lead to Alzheimer’s disease.

Now, if you’re not quite sure what Dr. Schilling’s findings mean, let me help you connect the dots. First, her work is being hailed not just as a breakthrough in the study of Alzheimer’s but in the field of science in general. It’s significant for two reasons. First, it highlights that specialists can become trapped in the logic of their field, and that new perspectives may need to come from outsiders. It also suggests that doctors and people may be ignoring clues that the body is out of balance…that hyperinsulinemia is actually an early warning sign that bad things are to come. Melissa is so convinced of the connection between diabetes and Alzheimer’s that she’s now actively lobbying to get glycemic index ratings put on all food labels. In her mind, this is an easy thing to get on top of. If people simply change their diet (aka less sugar and/or food that spikes insulin levels), they can significantly lessen the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia, as well as a host of other problems like diabetes.

The third interesting researcher is Dr. Dale Bredesen, CEO of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, and the current forerunner in the treatment and reversal of Alzheimer’s. He says the reason past Alzheimer’s treatments have failed is because we’ve been looking at the disease all wrong. Specifically, his laboratories found evidence that Alzheimer’s stems from an imbalance in nerve cell signaling. In the normal brain, specific signals foster nerve connections and memory making, while balancing signals support memory loss, allowing irrelevant information to be forgotten. But in Alzheimer’s disease, the balance of these opposing signals is disturbed, nerve connections are suppressed, and memories are lost. This was the clue they needed that explained why previous interventions weren’t working. Why? All of the drugs on the market today are focused on a single targeted agent. Hence, once they realized the problem was due to a breakdown in the network, they theorized that the solution might be a multi-component system approach, the kind that is in line with the approach taken with other chronic illnesses like HIV and some cancers. He says, “Imagine having a roof with 36 holes in it, and your drug patched one hole very well—the drug may have worked, a single “hole” may have been fixed, but you still have 35 other leaks, and so the underlying process may not be affected much.”

So, what is Dr. Bredesen’s systems approach? It’s personalized to the patient, based on extensive testing to determine what is affecting the plasticity signaling network of the brain. Then, based on where they see the breakdown occurring, they implement a combination of 36 different protocols which include changing the diet, adding intermittent fasting, reducing stress, increasing sleep, replenishing any hormone, neurotransmitter and nutrient deficiencies and adding both mental and physical exercise. The key is recognizing that it’s the combination of the protocols that work. They have a synergistic effect on each other.

Although more studies are needed, the early results of the Bredensen protocol are encouraging. 9 of 10 participants in the study[2] displayed subjective or objective improvement in their memories beginning within 3-to-6 months after the program’s start, and of the 6 patients who had to discontinue working or were struggling with their jobs at the time they joined the study, all were able to return to work or continue working with improved performance. Best of all, improvements have been sustained, two and one-half years from initial treatment. There was only 1 patient, diagnosed with late stage Alzheimer’s that did not improve.

Importance of Early Screening

If you’re wondering if adults should ask their doctors for early screening, the answer is “yes.” Dr. Bredensen highlighted that all but one of the ten patients included in his study are at genetic risk for AD, carrying at least one copy of the apolipoprotein E-e4 (APOE-e4). Five of the patients carried two copies of APOE4 which gives them a 10-12 times increased risk of developing AD. "We're entering a new era," said Bredesen. "The old advice was to avoid testing for APOE because there was nothing that could be done about it. Now we're recommending that people find out their genetic status as early as possible so they can go on prevention." He says sixty-five percent of the Alzheimer's cases in this country involve APOE4; with seven million people carrying two copies of the ApoE4 allele. Dr. Amen agrees and adds that people should be screened yearly after the age of 50 for memory problems, using simple paper and pencil tests. He provides a free brain health assessment on his website here. Then, if other cognitive problems come up, you can consider getting a brain scan.

6 Tips for Adopting a Healthy-Brain Lifestyle

So, what are the most important things people can do create a healthy brain? Here’s what the experts say:

  • Eat a Healthy Diet – Probably the most important thing is to eat a clean diet of lean protein, low glycemic, high fiber carbohydrates (so more leafy greens and vegetables, less grains) to keep blood sugar levels in control. Increase your intake of healthy fats from nuts/seeds, avocado, olives, coconut oil and focus on getting enough DHA (a form of omega-3 fatty acids) as DHA makes up a large portion of the grey matter in the brain and is needed for healthy neuron function. Finally, add prebiotic and probiotic foods to cultivate a healthy microbiome and drink lots of water.
  • Minimize Exposure to Chemicals – If you poison your body you poison your mind. So, take steps to eat organic food whenever possible, don’t partake of illegal drugs, stop smoking and stop using cleaning products without good ventilation.
  • Get Adequate Sleep – This means 7-8 hours a night, preferably in a cool, dark room.
  • Exercise – Physical activity is important because it not only boosts blood flow to the brain, it increases the production of key neurotransmitters that are needed for learning and memory, and it also stimulates the growth of new brain cells.
  • Mental Challenge – Once you exercise and boost blood flow to your brain, you need mental exercise. Why? In one study of lab rats, exercise was found to generate new cells in the learning and memory centers of the brain. But these new cells died after 4 weeks if they weren’t stimulated by new learning. The conclusion being if you stimulate new brain cells by using learning something new, they connect to other cells and become part of the fabric of your brain.

    This is why people who only work out at the gym are not nearly as smart as people who work out AND then go to the library, write or engage in some creative endeavor. In other words, they don’t just go home and veg out in front of the television, shop the internet or catch up on social media. Learn to dance, play an instrument, do crossword puzzles, write poetry, or learn a new language.
  • Appreciate the Good Things in Life – Finally, focus on what you love instead of what you don’t like about your life. Studies have found that how the brain responds to an environmental event stimulates it to release neurochemicals that control (turn on or off) cell and gene behavior in the body. Specifically, if you see something happy and beautiful, the brain releases chemicals that give growth to the body, but if you see something as threatening or scary, the brain releases chemicals into the blood that cause the body to protect itself and shut down. Dr. Amen recommends writing down 5 things you are grateful for every day, and then meditating on those things throughout the day. Or whenever you catch yourself in a negative mind frame…pause and focus on what you want instead of what you don’t want.

That’s it! Easy, right? Seriously, if you do nothing else, I encourage you to take Dr. Amen’s free Brain Health Assessment. I found it incredibly helpful to learn how my mind works and the many ways I can improve my brain and life!

Until next time, seek strength!

[1] Unraveling Alzheimer’s: Making Sense of the Relationship Between Diabetes and Alzheimer’s Disease, Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, April 2016, by Melissa A. Schilling
[2] Reversal of Cognitive Decline:  A Novel Therapeutic Program, Aging, September, 2014, Dale E. Bredesen


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