In Italy, elderly people are often sitting outside their usual coffee shop, playing cards or commenting on passers by, while drinking their coffee or grappa. If one of them forgets something, he’ll throw his hands in the air and you’ll hear him say, “what are you going to do? It’s normal, we are getting old!”. Truth is, memory loss does not have to be part of ageing.
Personally, I have spent the past 10 years seeing my grandmother going through stages 1-7 of Alzheimer’s Disease. I have seen the heartbreak in my father’s eyes when she did not recognise him, and her frustration when during the first stages, she would look at a field of flowers and could not find the words to describe it. This is why I decided to start specialising in brain health, to find out what the latest research could teach us about taking cognitive health into our own hands, and start spreading that knowledge to others. Let's start with current research and the science behind the brain.
What do we know about cognitive decline and impairment?
AD’s pathology shows deposits (or plaques) of a protein called amyloid Beta in the brain between neurons (nerve cells), which impairs signalling from one cell to another, and twisted fibres (or tangles) a protein called Tau inside the cell itself which stops the transport of nutrients inside brain cells. With time, these types of obstacles can lead to cell death, causing symptoms such as loss of memory, personality changes and towards the end of the disease, the inability to perform daily activities.(2)
Whereas this condition has often been thought of as omnipotent, recent studies have actually discovered that AD is a metabolic disease that can start developing up to 30 years before.(3)
By metabolism, I mean different chemical processes that happen within your body, and a metabolic disease happens when one or more of these processes become impaired.
Other metabolic diseases you may have heard of are Diabetes (AD is strongly affected by blood sugar regulation and has now been called Type3 diabetes), osteoporosis and osteoarthritis, digestive diseases and many more.
So then, is there anything you can do to improve the causes of cognitive impairment and decrease your chances of developing dementia?
Brain performance training
The latest breakthrough research by Professor Dale Bredesen, has shown how he managed to reverse AD in 90% of the patients that have taken part in his clinical trial so far. His protocol uses a 36 points program, which includes multiple steps that affect brain chemistry, such as specific pharmaceuticals, brain stimulation and nutritional supplements amongst others, but is largely based on diet and lifestyle changes. Pretty mind blowing right? Prof. Bredesen has compared the AD brain to a roof with many holes, basically a disease with multiple metabolic causes, explaining that drugs manage to block only one of these holes. He believes that to achieve results, all of them or at least most of them, need to be tackled by using a multiple therapeutic approach.(2, 4).
If you are interested in the research and science, I suggest checking out Cytoplan which has brought Prof. Bredesen’s findings here in the UK, and together, they have created The Action Against Alzheimer’s Program (AAA). This is a series of workshops based on Functional Medicine and using the diet and lifestyle aspects of the Bredesen’s Protocol, aimed at people who are still well and want to enhance brain health, decreasing their risk of cognitive decline. The participants also receive a Self-Care Journey home study module, to provide support throughout and help them keep track of their progress and changes.
Here's how to slowly incorporate mindful changes into your diet and lifestyle, like the best foods and what to do and what to avoid, to ensure that your giving your brain the TLC it needs.
How to improve cognitive function
1. Incorporate the right kind of nutrients in your diet
• Omega 3 Essential Fatty Acids which can be found in oily fish such as salmon, sardines and anchovies, are your brain’s best friend, as the brain is 60% fat. And DHA (Docosahexanoic acid), is the most abundant omega 3 in the brain. If you are vegan, or vegetarian, your best sources are hempseeds, linseeds and walnuts. These types of fats can help your cells’ structure and function.
• B vitamins, which can be found in wholegrains and are helpful to keep homocysteine levels balanced. They help balance the amino acids in your body, which in too high a level, can create inflammation.
• Vitamin D, found in sunlight, egg yolks and mushrooms amongst others, has also been liked to AD, with recent studies showing that AD patients often present lower concentrations of this vitamin.
• Beta-carotene can be enjoyed in plant foods like carrots, sweet potatoes and squash. It gives them their orange pigment and in the body it needs to be converted into active vitamin A before it can be utilised. From animal foods like liver, vitamin A is already in its active form and does not need any conversion to be used by the body. Just like vitamin D, lower concentrations of vitamin A have been observed in AD patients, and in vitro studies have also shown that it may help to obstacle the formation of plaques and tangles.(3,4,5,6,7).
2. Keep your diet low in sugar
Avoid over consumption of sugar in your diet with a moderate amount of starchy carbohydrates (wholegrain pasta or bread, sweet potatoes, parsnips) making sure to swap those white refined bread and pasta with wholegrains types.(4)
3. Move around
Exercise daily for 30 minutes, even if it’s just a brisk walk.(8)
4. Get better sleep
Ensure you get a good night’s sleep, making sure your room is not only dark to help melatonin (sleep hormone) production, but also quiet to help your mind keep calm and relaxed (avoiding horror films just before bed could also be a good idea..).(9)
5. Exercise your brain
6. Fast the right way
Fasting is another aspect to explore, start with leaving 3 hours between dinner and bed time to help digestion, and 12 hours between dinner and breakfast, as this has been shown to help dispose of beta amyloid deposits in the brain, one of the key aspects of AD.(4)
To help you on your way to improving cognitive function, concentration and memory in yourself, the elderly or children, here’s a delicious brain boosting smoothie recipe to try:
Brain Boosting Smoothie Recipe
• 1 cup frozen blueberries
• 1/2 creamy avocado
• 1/2 cup of oats
• 1 teaspoon of cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract
• 1 handful of spinach
• 1 small handful of fresh mint
• 1 tablespoon of protein powder (optional)
• 1 cup unsweetened almond milk (or any other plant milk. Just ensure there is no added sugar!)
Pop everything into your blender, whizz up and enjoy!
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1. ONS (2015) Deaths registered in England and Wales (Series DR): 2015 Office for National Available at https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/deaths/bulletins /deathsregisteredinenglandandwalesseriesdr/2015 (accessed 26.07.17)
2. Alzheimer’s Association (2014) Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures Alzheimer’s Association Website Available at https://www.alz.org/downloads/facts_figures_2014.pdf (accessed 28.07.17)
3. Ghosh K Agarwal P & Greg Haggerty G (2011) Alzheimer's Disease – Not an Exaggeration of Healthy Aging Indian J Psychol Med. 2011 Jul-Dec; 33(2): 106–114. Available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3271481/
4. Bredesen D E, (2014) – Reversal of Cognitive decline: a novel - therapeutic program. Ageing, 6 (9), 707-17. Available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4221920/
5. Akbari E et al (2016) Effect of Probiotic Supplementation on Cognitive Function and Metabolic Status in Alzheimer's Disease: A Randomized, Double-Blind and Controlled Trial Front Aging Neuroscience. Available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5105117/ (accessed 26.07.17)
6. Annweiler C et al (2013) Low serum vitamin D concentrations in Alzheimer’s disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of AlzhNeimer's Disease. 2013;33(3):659–674. Available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23042216 (accessed 26.07.17)
7. Gu Y . Nutrient intake and plasma beta-amyloid. Neurology. 78(23):1832–1840. Available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubm(Accessed 31.07.17).ed/22551728 (accessed 26.07.17).
8. Cai H, Li G, Hua S, Liu Y, Chen L (2017) Effect of exercise on cognitive function in chronic disease patients: a meta-analysis and systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Clinical Interventions in Ageing, 12: 773–783. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5436795/
9. Wade AG, Farmer M, Harari G, Fund N, Laudon M, Nir T, Frydman-Marom A, Zisapel N (2014) Add-on prolonged-release melatonin for cognitive function and sleep in mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease: a 6-month, randomized, placebo-controlled, multicenter trial. Clinical Interventions in Ageing, 9: 947–961. Available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4069047/ . (Accessed 31.07.17)