Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is a cluster of degenerative diseases that gradually destroy the human brain from the top down and from inside out. As brain cells die, brain tissue shrinks. Loss of memory, attention, speech, thinking capacity, and orientation, along with behavioral problems in various combinations, gradually become apparent. The website for the Alzheimer’s Association provides these sobering, staggering facts:
- One in every eight older Americans has Alzheimer’s disease.
- One of every eight baby boomers will develop AD, and one in six will develop dementia.
- Approximately 500,000 Americans under age 65 have Alzheimer’s or another dementia.
- With people living longer, the number with Alzheimer’s is expected to triple by the year 2050.
- AD is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States.
The likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s doubles about every five years after age 65. Those who have a blood relative with Alzheimer’s are more likely to develop the disease. The risk also increases if more than one family member has the illness. The annual cost for care of AD patients in 2012 is estimated at $200 billion.
Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is a less serious condition which poses significant problems also. About 10 to 20 percent of adults aged 65 and older are believed to have MCI. Cognitive impairment, or the decline in mental faculties, can result from a variety of conditions. Half of these cases will develop Alzheimer’s later.
Cardiovascular disease increases the likelihood of getting AD and MCI. Mild cognitive impairment can come on suddenly as from a stroke or other type of head injury or gradually from lifestyle practices. Common diseases, such as high blood pressure, stroke, cardiovascular disease, and a major or long-lasting depression, increase the risk for developing mental impairment. Other chronic conditions that increase MCI risk include:
- Metabolic syndrome
- Liver disease
- Multiple sclerosis
- Chronic kidney disease
- Certain drugs and medications
A Closer Look: Chronic Diseases and Mental Deterioration
A NHLBI study1 found that:
- Individuals with high blood pressure developed small areas of vascular brain damage at a faster rate than those individuals with normal blood pressure. They also experienced a more rapid worsening of scores on tests of the brain’s executive functions (such as planning and decision making).
- People with diabetes in middle age lost brain volume in the hippocampus at a faster rate than those without diabetes. The hippocampus is involved in learning, memory, and mood regulation. People who lose brain cells in the hippocampus are more likely to develop dementia.
- The brain’s executive abilities declined at a faster rate in individuals who were obese during middle age.
- People with a high waist-to-hip ratio were also more likely to be in the top 25 percent of those with faster decrease in their brain volume.
Therefore, it is essential that we use proven lifestyle interventions to control (and in some cases reverse) chronic diseases such as hypertension, obesity, and type diabetes. For some individuals, the judicious use of medication will also be needed. The good news is the same lifestyle measures that prevent, reverse, or control these diseases also helps to preserve brain functioning.
At least seven of the diseases that increase the risk for AD and MCI are related to the lifestyle we choose and the foods we eat. But that is not all. Consider these statistics:
- One study showed that when compared to non-smokers, those who had smoked two packs of cigarettes a day increased their risk of developing Alzheimer's by more than 157 percent and had a 172 percent higher risk of developing vascular dementia, the second most common form of dementia after Alzheimer's.2 Smokers lose brain volume overall and in the hippocampus at a faster rate than nonsmokers and are more likely to have detectable signs of vascular damage in the brain.
- Alcohol and Alzheimer’s produce similar effects on cognition, brain disorders, and brain chemistry.3
- The hippocampus is vulnerable to THC in marijuana. Marijuana use impairs a person's ability to form new memories and to shift focus. Marijuana's effects on the brain can gradually accumulate and deteriorate critical life skills over time.4 Such effects may be worse in those with other mental disorders, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and obesity.
Obviously, a person who is serious about preventing cognitive decline will address any addiction issues he/she may have.
Diet and Brain Health
Eat temperately. Overeating in middle-age years impacts memory in the later years. Indeed, a recent study showed that individuals who are obese in middle age are at almost four times greater risk of developing dementia in later life than people of normal weight.5 Obesity increases inflammation within the brain. In contrast to overeating, calorie restriction improves memory and reduces certain inflammatory markers in elderly people.
Avoid dietary pitfalls. A typical Western diet (high fat, high sugar) causes cell membranes in the brain to be less flexible, thus compromising the flow of nutrients into the brain cells. A moderate intake of unsaturated fats at midlife is protective, whereas a moderate intake of saturated fats may increase the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s.6 In her studies, Rothenburg found that a high intake of meat, butter, high-fat dairy products, eggs, and refined sugar, was associated with an increased risk for AD. Meat, especially pork, decreases electrical activity in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain.7 According to neurophysiologist Dr. Bernell Baldwin, some studies show that vegetarians have approximately 50 percent less risk of developing dementia than non-vegetarians.8
Enjoy a plant-based diet. Even if you have not eaten wisely, when you adopt a good diet, the flexibility of membranes of the brain cells improves. Not only that: the blood flow, the electrical balance, and the chemistry within the brain get better.
Monounsaturated fats, found in almonds and olives, prevent the clumping of blood cells in the brain. This results in longer attention spans and improved cognitive performance. Omega-3 fats improve the ability of brain cells to receive messages.9 Although fish is a good source of omega-3 fats, the fatty tissues of fish often accumulate environmental toxins (mercury and pesticides), which damage the brain. For this reason toasted flaxseed, walnuts, soybeans, and spinach are preferable as omega-3 sources.
Colorful fruits and vegetables provide antioxidants and anti-inflammatory phytochemicals that can protect the brain from cognitive decline. Flavonoids in purple, red, and blue fruits improve memory and problem solving.1011121314 Apples reduce pro-inflammatory chemicals (which promote dementia) in the brain. Their regular consumption seems to also help prevent the decline in cognitive performance seen in normal aging.15 They increase the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Studies suggest that regular consumption of cruciferous, green leafy veggies, and yellow vegetables may also afford protection.
Check your blood levels.
Even low normal levels of B12 can cause neurological damage and mental symptoms. Vitamin D deficiency is rather common in North America and Western Europe. Older men and women with low levels of vitamin D are nearly four times as likely to have problems with their mental faculties of memory, attention, and logic.
Keep Physically Active
Exercise increases neurotrophin levels in the brain and spinal cord. Neurotrophins act as fertilizers that nourish and protect brain cells and increase the number and efficiency of synapses (microscopic places of communication between nerve cells) thus making learning and recall easier. Neurophysiologist Bernell Baldwin teaches that exercise promotes the production of stem cells in three areas of the brain. If the diet is right (low in saturated fat and ample in antioxidants, for example), these stem cells can then migrate to other parts of the brain.
Use It or Lose It
Brain cells will die unless stimulated. Engage in a variety of wholesome mental activities that stimulates the different portions of brain. Jigsaw puzzles, mathematics, learning a new skill or a language, carpentry, mechanics, Bible study, and meaningful social relationships stimulate the various faculties of mind and make them stronger.
Used with permission from Wildwood’s College of Health Evangelism.
High Blood Pressure, Diabetes, Smoking and Obesity in Middle Age May Shrink Brain, Damage Thinking, Science Daily (Aug. 2, 2011). ↩
Marcus, M.B., Study: Alzheimer's risk spikes 157% with heavy smoking. usatoday30.usatoday.com/yourlife/health/medical/alzheimers/2010-10-26↩
Tyas, S., Alcohol use and the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh25-4/299-306.htm↩
Laitinen, M.H., et al, Fat intake at midlife and risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease; a population-based study. Dement Geriatr Cogn Disord, 22(1):99-107, 2006.↩
Baldwin, B.E. and Baldwin, M.V., The Effects of Some Favor Chemicals of the Gastric Vagus, Brain, and Heart, and the Integrity of the Gastric Mucosa, Proceedings of the International Union of the Physiological Sciences, abstract 122, 1977.↩
Giem, P., et al. The incidence of dementia and the intake of animal products, preliminary findings of the Adventist Health Study, Neurobiology: 12:28-36, 1993.↩
Griffin, V., et al, Foods for Thought: Nutrition’s Link to Mood, Memory, Learning and Behavior, Review & Herald↩
Lau, F.C., Nutritional intervention in brain aging: reducing the effects of inflammation and oxidative stress. Subcell Biochem, 42:299-318, 2007, review.↩
Galli, R.L., et al, Fruit polyphenolics and brain aging: nutritional interventions targeting age-related neuronal and behavioral deficits. Ann N Y Acad Sci, 959:128-32, 2002.↩
Joseph, J.A., et al, Reversing the deleterious effect of aging on neuronal communication and behavior; beneficial properties of fruit polyphenolic compounds. Am J Clin Nutr, 81(1 Suppl):313S-316S, 2005.↩
Shukitt-Hale, B., Berry fruit supplementation and the aging brain. J Agric Food Chem, 56(3):636-41, 2008.↩
J Alzheimers Dis. 2005 Dec;8(3):283-7.↩
Tchantchou F, et al., Apple juice concentrate prevents oxidative damage and impaired maze performance in aged mice. J Alzheimers Dis. 2005 Dec;8(3):283-7.↩