Recently I’ve been encouraged by all the research into preventing and slowing cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s (I’ve written a number of articles on the topic). Diet, exercise, lowering homocysteine levels and increasing our social interactions can all help prevent and slow the progression of mental decline and Alzheimer’s.
Another avenue to explore is the relatively new idea that adult brains can (contrary to the long held view that it wasn’t possible) regenerate themselves, given the right conditions. This is called neurogenesis and it’s currently a hot topic with brain researchers.
The first scientist to propose that a human adult’s brain could grow new cells and neuron connections was Dr. Joseph Altman from MIT, who published work on the topic way back in 1962,.1 He was ignored by the scientific community and it was only in the 1990’s that researchers started re-looking at his work and discovered that he was right. Since then, there’s been a huge amount of research on the subject and today it’s accepted that neurogenesis is possible in adult brains.2 Research has shown that the hippocampus (the area of the brain associated with memory formation, consolidation and navigation), and the sub ventricular zone (the area in the brain that creates new neurons which play a role in brain and nerve communication) are the two major areas in the brain where neurogenesis occurs.3 However, more recent research is speculating that other areas of the brain may also be able to regenerate.4
The implications for cognitive decline, which currently affects some 55 million people world wide, are exciting. Simply put, by giving our brains the right tools (nutrients) and eliminating adverse conditions (stress, toxic build up, etc.), we can possibly mitigate the effects of ageing and subsequent cognitive decline.
So let’s take a look at what researchers are telling us. As I mentioned in a previous article, think of your brain as a muscle which needs to be nourished and exercised in order for it to perform optimally. The sooner we start taking care of our brains, the greater the benefits will be as we age. There are basically three things that will make the most difference – diet, exercise and eliminating toxins. Let’s look at each one in more detail.
There are numerous studies5,6,7,8 that show that a poor diet leads to mental decline (and all other chronic diseases). Eating a diet high in wholegrains, fruit, vegetables and good fats (like the Mediterranean and DASH diets) and avoiding refined carbohydrates, trans-fats, processed and packaged foods, fast foods, takeaways, colourants, preservatives and additives will help your brain health. (read more on this here). Eating berries, especially blueberries9 also helps, as can drinking green tea. Both are high in polyphenols which benefit the brain.10
Some nutrients that have been shown to actively aid neurogenesis are:
Curcumin. Studies11,12 have shown that curcumin, a component of turmeric, can increase neurogenesis and help protect the hippocampus from the negative effects of stress. As curcumin is a potent antioxidant, it may also help protect against damage from toxins in our food, water and air.
Omega 3. Omega 3 is probably one of the most studied nutrients in the world (read more here) and there are many studies showing how it assists neurogenesis.13,14,15 Because Omega 3 is such a wonderful natural anti-inflammatory, it can help almost every part of the body.
Vitamin B. It’s long been known that a deficiency of Vitamin B, specifically folic acid, at conception can impair brain development. Conversely, there are a number of studies showing that Vit B supplementation can assist neurogenesis.16,17,18
Vitamin E. There are numerous studies showing that Vitamin E can help the brain regenerate.19,20,21 Vitamin E deficiency has a marked effect on the brain, including increasing cell death,22 making it even more important to supplement.
There is reason to speculate that taking a good quality, organically derived, whole food based multi vitamin and mineral supplement will be a good investment in your long term health, including that of your brain. One study23 noted that “we estimated that the effect of the multivitamin intervention improved memory performance above placebo by the equivalent of 3.1 y of age-related memory change.”
Another aspect worth looking at is intermittent fasting, basically reducing calorie intake on a regular basis. There is significant evidence24,25,26 to show that there are real benefits to this practice. It’s a really simple concept, simply cut out eating for 12 or more hours on a regular basis. Fasting kick-starts a process called autophagy, where the body destroys any defective cells and cleans up all the junk. You could think of it as the body’s spring cleaning.
We were designed to be active, so modern sedentary lifestyles wreak havoc with our heath, increasing the risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer and mental decline. Studies are increasingly showing the benefits of getting off the couch and out into the fresh air. One study showed that doing something as simple as taking a brisk walk for 40 minutes a day can increase neurogenesis.27 The researchers noted that this “…increased hippocampal volume by 2%, effectively reversing age-related loss in volume by 1 to 2 years.” In this study, they compared two groups of older participants – one group doing aerobic exercise (walking) vs another group who did stretching exercises only. The stretching group showed no benefits and their overall fitness actually declined over the study period. Getting active will increase overall health and reduce the risk of all chronic diseases, including cognitive decline.
The overall message from current science is that we can do a lot to prevent our brains from deteriorating and can even assist them in regenerating, reducing our risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s. An added benefit is that we will be increasing our overall health and protecting ourselves from all chronic disease.