Memory loss is a pervasive and heartbreaking issue in this country. It’s hard to imagine being able to find even one person that hasn’t had a close relative with some sort of age-related memory decline ranging from dementia to Alzheimer’s. Also, as our life expectancies continue to increase, these diseases that culminate in memory loss rise as well. It is estimated that one in eight older Americans will be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. With statistics like these, we should all be giving the health of our brains as much attention as we tend to give the health of our hearts. Although cures, especially for the direst of the dementia diagnoses, don’t exist, we can take steps to slow their progression. Now is the time to put a prevention plan in place so that your extended lifespan will provide you with healthy and enjoyable years.
The good news in what might so far seem a depressing article is that many of the changes you should make are relatively easy. Lifestyle adjustments have shown to have a profound effect on your memory and brain function. Topping the list to improve your mind is to exercise your body. First off, exercise increases circulation. The brain comprises only about 2% of our body weight but it requires 25% of our blood flow to function properly. Pumping more blood through your body will help provide your brain with more oxygen and the much-needed nutrients that it requires to produce the high of amount of energy necessary to support the estimated 100 billion neurons that need to function. Regular exercise will also help control risk factors that are associated with increased risk for dementia including high blood pressure, obesity, blood sugar disturbance, and depression. Exercise also helps to release endorphins and other chemicals shown to decrease stress, which itself can propagate memory disturbance. In addition to physical exercise, exercising the mind has repeatedly been shown to improve mental acuity. Challenging your mind with social interaction, reading, or even puzzles helps to continually build new neuronal synapses or connections in the brain.
It is likely no surprise that both good sleep and good nutrition have been associated with decreased rates of dementia and Alzheimer’s. Sleep, like exercise, decreases all the health risk factors that increase memory decline. More specifically, it is believed that sleep might reduce the buildup in the brain of an abnormal protein called beta-amyloid which is associated with Alzheimer’s.
Nutritionally, loading your diet with essential fatty acids, especially DHA (a type of omega-3 that is effective at crossing the blood/brain barrier) has been shown to promote mental sharpness. Essential fatty acids are best found in fatty fish like salmon or can be taken by supplementation. Those showing signs of memory decline should make sure that their fish oil or omega supplement has a higher level of DHA than the average combinations (at least 1000mg of DHA but sometimes much higher levels will be prescribed).
In addition to good fats, your diet should be full of leafy greens and whole grains. Not only do these foods provide a multitude of nutrients, but your brain uses these carbohydrates as its main source of energy. For those with signs of memory disturbance or increased risk factors, maintaining a balance between carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, and ignoring any fad diets that don’t allow many carbs is key.
Not only does the brain require a whopping 25% of our circulation, but it also needs 20% of the energy (ATP) that our body produces. Therefore, one of the primary strategies for improving brain health is to improve production and availability of energy. Many nutrients can help to promote the production of ATP energy, including Vitamin B12, CoEnzyme Q10 (CoQ10), and L-carnitine. Vitamin B12 should be taken either sublingually or by injection. CoQ10 should be taken in the more active form of ubiquinol (not ubiquinone); L-carnitine should be in the form of Acetyl-l-carnitine (I’ll explain below). Dosages for all of these can vary, and I would suggest that you have an integrative provider guide you towards the best plan for your brain and memory health.
In addition to helping the brain to acquire more energy, another common strategy to employ with both nutrients and medications is to increase the availability of a substance called acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is the neurotransmitter that allows nerves to communicate with each other. Many of the pharmaceuticals and the studies behind them deploy this kind of support to try to delay dementia symptoms. Nutrients that have shown positive results in study include acetyl-l-carnitine. The acetyl group from acetyl-l-carnitine can be used to produce acetylcholine (remember above, this nutrient also helped to promote energy production). In a double blind, placebo-controlled, randomized trial involving 130 elderly individuals for one year, acetyl-l-carnitine was shown to support healthy cognitive function, memory, and attention. Huperzine-A is an herbal constituent also shown to increase acetylcholine,and like acetyl-l-carnitine, it is often found in memory support combinations.
The nutrient phosphatidylserine is a phospholipid. Phospholipids are critical components of cell membranes and are found in especially high concentrations in the brain and nervous tissues, primarily in the cell membranes of neurons. Phospholipids are vital for proper production of acetylcholine and communication between neurons. The popular supplement Prevagen, which is a protein extract, probably works in a similar manner.
Botanicals and botanical extracts, like resveratrol, gingko, Bacopa, and Rhodiola have shown positive memory effects for some. They might be especially useful for those suffering from early memory decline or that associated with stress or hormone imbalance.
Maintaining brain health and taking steps to decrease mental decline might be the most vital component to ensuring a long, healthy, and active life. Many of the lifestyle tenets are the same as those which will improve our heart-health, increase our immunity, and just plain make us happier. If you must, let the threat of a declining mind be that final encouragement to do right by your body. Also, talk to your integrative provider, as they can provide the most appropriate regimen to not only keep you healthy, but to keep you sharp as well.
Stay healthy & be well!
-Amy Whittington, NMD