How to Keep Your Brain Young

Heart disease, diabetes, and cancer are scary conditions to deal with, but at least they don’t take away who you are. Alzheimer’s is a different beast: it takes away our memories, makes us forget the people we love, and is a heavy burden for individuals and their families. 

A new study published in the journal Circulation reported a 184 percent increase in deaths due to Alzheimer’s disease over the past 30 years. This is a frightening statistic by any measure, but luckily there are things we can do to stop—and even reverse—cognitive decline at any stage or age.

We used to think it was impossible to recover lost or damaged brain cells. But exciting research is starting to uncover why this is not the case. Our brain has the ability to adapt, change, and grow new neurons through a concept known as neuroplasticity. This means we’re not doomed to become a statistic and lose our minds as we get older. We can start taking steps right now to boost our brain health and prevent the onset and progression of Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Root Cause of Alzheimer’s
Inflammation is the root cause of Alzheimer’s, but there are a myriad of factors that contribute to it. Insulin resistance, for example, eventually leads to plaque build up, poor circulation, and neuroinflammation. Some experts have even referred to Alzheimer’s as “type 3 diabetes.” Leaky gut is another leading cause of inflammation and a well-established risk factor for Alzheimer’s. 

Potential contributors to leaky gut include a nutrient-depleted diet of processed foods, environmental toxins, chronic stress, food sensitivities, antibiotics, and infections—just to name a few. These stressors weaken our gut barrier and allow unwanted materials to pass through. If you have a leaky gut, there’s a good chance you also have a leaky brain. Because your blood-brain barrier is semipermeable, bacteria and toxins can cross through, which can result in neuroinflammation. 

There are also genetic risk factors for Alzheimer’s, like the APOE4 gene, that play a huge role in regulating cholesterol levels. Having two copies of APOE4 increases your risk for Alzheimer’s and heart disease. Then there’s MTHFR, the gene that helps break down homocysteine, an amino acid your body uses to make proteins. A single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) in MTHFR interferes with metabolism and causes homocysteine to build up, which increases the risk of heart disease. 

The good news is, even if you are genetically susceptible to Alzheimer’s, you can still do a lot to protect yourself and your brain by making simple diet and lifestyle changes. 

  • Eat a brain-healthy diet. Fat is back—and our brains couldn’t be happier. Our brains are 60 percent fat, and half of that fat is omega-3s. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 fat abundant in gray matter, plays a role in memory, learning, and cognition. A study found that high DHA intake is associated with a greater resilience to Alzheimer’s in adults with the APOE4 gene. 

    Sardines, mackerel, anchovies, salmon, and herring are good sources of omega-3s. Eat two servings a week or take a high-quality omega-3 supplement to meet your brain’s demands. Additionally, monounsaturated fats from olive oil, nuts, seeds, and avocados can boost acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that plays a role in memory and cognition. You can also look for medium-chain triglycerides, or MCT oil, a super fat that you can get from a supplement or coconut oil. MCT is great for mental clarity and focus.

    In addition to fat, you need adequate protein from high-quality sources—foods like wild-caught fish, pasture-raised meat, and eggs—and a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables for their phytochemicals and fiber. These types of foods feed our good gut bugs, strengthen our intestinal barrier, and help lower inflammation. Remember to cook with spices like rosemary, turmeric, and oregano, too, for their amazing disease-fighting benefits.

  • Movement. Exercise boosts nitric oxide, a molecule that enhances blood flow and promotes neuroplasticity by producing brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BFNF), which is essentially “miracle grow” for your brain. BDNF supports the connection and growth of new neurons. The best exercise is any type of movement you enjoy, like a 30-minute walk, riding your bike, yoga, hiking, digging in your garden, dancing, or playing with your grandchildren. Don’t be afraid to make it fun!

  • Stress management. Did you know that stress can actually shrink your brain? Cortisol, our stress hormone, binds to receptors on the hippocampus, the region of the brain that’s responsible for memory, and wears it down. That’s why stress management is so important. Journaling, mindful meditation, exercise, or working with a licensed therapist can help you find ways to better manage your stress. 

  • Sleep. You can’t underestimate the power of a good night’s sleep. Sleep is critical as we age, because so much happens—and needs to happen—while we’re at rest. Our immune system is hard at work at night recharging, repairing, and clearing away damaged DNA and cells. The glymphatic system (our brain’s immune system) does the same thing, plus it helps get rid of neurotoxic waste like amyloid-beta plaques that gunk up our brain and cause inflammation. It’s critical to establish a bedtime routine for yourself, just like parents do for a young child.

    What should go into your evening routine? You can take a high-quality magnesium or melatonin supplement to help calm and relax your mind and body, avoid blue light for an hour or more before bed, drink a cup of chamomile or valerian root tea, take a hot shower, or read a book. Simply put, do anything that will make you feel relaxed and avoid anything that will interfere with your sleep quality. 

There’s no sugarcoating the statistics around Alzheimer’s. Instead of living in fear or waiting for the next “wonder drug” to come along (spoiler alert: pharmaceutical companies have been at it for decades and all have fallen flat), we need to start thinking about how to treat the root cause: inflammation. Take these four steps and apply them to your life, and your brain will thank you down the road. We can grow old and wise while still keeping our brain healthy and our spirit young!

Wishing you health and happiness,

Mark Hyman, MD

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