We all know how to keep our hearts healthy, but what about our brains?
Eat oats for breakfast, get your five a day, vigorous exercise three times a week, blah blah blah.
Intensive and persistent media campaigns have firmly embedded what should and shouldn’t be done to maintain our cardiovascular system. Brain health is less publicised, and yet relative numbers of brain disorders are on the increase. This is, in part, due to improved longevity, but a longer life mired with dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease, is not one most of us would choose.
It’s not as though we can run the gauntlet and then put ourselves on a transplant list later on down the track. The brain is our most unique organ. It is what gives us our character. The health of this sensitive cluster of cells relies not just on physical requirements, but mental stimulation too.
Nurturing our minds is big business.
The growing trend of computer games and smart phone apps will have you believe that a couple of Sudoku puzzles every day will prevent cognitive decline, or in some mythological adverts, even dementia. Thankfully, most of the brain training apps have now been debunked. Yaakov Stern, a neuropsychologist at Colombia University, NY, states that ‘There’s no magic activity that will do that.” There are though, some activities that can boost mental capacity, or as some researchers call it, cognitive reserve. This reserve has been likened to a buffer, allowing the brain to sustain more damage before its effects are felt.
Cognitive reserve is linked to higher IQ and greater occupational or educational attainment. According to some researchers, there are a few activities which can build and strengthen this buffer, no matter the age they are started.
There are some steps that can statistically reduce the risk of developing dementia, or at the very least mitigate its affects for a time.
1 — Remain socially active
Regular conversation keeps the neurons firing and re-wiring to accommodate new ideas and memories. You really do have to use it or lose it. In a 2018 analysis of married couples, Andrew Sommerlad, a psychiatrist at University College, London, demonstrated a statistically significant link between marriage and reduced risk of dementia. He attributes this to the additional effort required to maintain good spousal relations.
2 — Exercise
This one seems obvious, but what is good for the heart, is also good for the brain. When you exercise, you release brain derived neurotrophic chemicals which encourage new brain cell growth. The connections between those neurons, aids memory formation and retention. Exercise also increases the number of energy factories, or mitochondria in the cells. As yet, no one has actually pinpointed how these two things assist with cognitive reserves, but it is thought to be linked to increased blood flow.
3 — Hearing
When you struggle to hear what people are saying, less focus and attention is placed on assimilating that information. According to neuroscientist Arthur Wingfield, at Brandeis University, Massachusetts, even mild hearing loss can impact the brain’s function. It therefore stands to reason that all possible measures should be taken to preserve your hearing, from regular medical checks to wearing earplugs at noisy events or workplaces. All of these precautions have shown a marked effect on preventing cognitive decline.
4 — Inflammation
Unsurprisingly, prolonged inflammation of any part of the body can be harmful. Bei Wu, at New York University, studied 8000 people in China for 13 years, testing cognitive decline and tooth count. Her results were astounding. She found a distinct correlation between tooth loss and cognitive decline, even when she accounted for the natural effects of ageing. Although this study still requires further evidence in support of its claims, the initial evidence linking inflammation to brain health is an exciting step forward.
An inflammatory response to injury is helpful to our bodies, directing white blood cells to the area, in order to combat the presence of microbes, allowing wounded parts to heal. It is when the inflammation response is chronic, such as that triggered by continuous stress, that damage is likely to occur.
Brain inflammation increases the action of a chemical called glutamate. This can reduce the size of brain cells, and hinder the production of new cells. If this continues for long enough, it can eventually lead to dementia, according to Bruce McEwen, at Rockefeller University, NY. Managing stress is not just for general well being, it is crucial for brain health.
5 — Life Goals
Having a purpose in life, a sense of belonging or a fulfilling job, can all prevent cognitive decline. It might take the form of looking after grandchildren, discovering a long-dormant talent to foster, or feeling useful to others in some way. Working towards a life goal gives us the motivation to improve ourselves, to learn new things and forge new pathways in our brain morphology.
McEwen states that having purpose forces us to interact with more people, thus improving our cognitive reserves. Whichever way you look at it, avoiding mental stagnation seems to be the key.
6 — Sleep
This is another obvious factor. We are all grimly aware of what lack of sleep can do to our brain function. Neuroscientist, Maiken Nedergaard, at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, studied the effects of sleep on the brain. During our waking hours, we metabolise lots of nutrients in order to achieve tasks, often under pressure. Each brain cell is surrounded by helpers called glial cells. They mop up the waste products of metabolism, which if left, would grow to toxic levels and eventually destroy neurons.
When we sleep, our brains are bathed in cerebral spinal fluid, flushing out the toxins ready for a new day. Insufficient sleep cycles, particularly deep sleep, prevents brain detox. Similarly, Rapid Eye Movement sleep, is also crucial for the laying down and consolidation of new memories. Every phase of sleep is required for optimal brain health.
7 — Diet
Martha Morris, a nutritionist at Rush University, Chicago, tweaked the Mediterranean diet in her attempts to improve brain health. She calls it the MIND diet. It targets foods rich in anti-oxidant properties. These chemicals protect cells from the damaging effects of free radicals, and includes others which are known to lower the body’s inflammatory response. Foods such as leafy greens, berries and grains, were on her MIND list, while saturated fats and sugars were placed on the risky list.
Morris tested out her diet on 923 retired people. Half consumed the MIND diet the other half had a blood pressure diet. Her findings were quite conclusive, with those on the MIND diet outperforming the blood pressure dieters, reducing their risk of Alzheimer’s by 53%.
8 — Maintenance of a healthy blood — brain barrier (BBB)
The brain has an integral system of micro-vessels circulating essential nutrients to the cells, and barring access to microbes and some harmful chemicals. This is the first line of defence for our neurons. The barrier itself, is a complex combination of specialised cells between the blood vessel membranes and the fluids in the central nervous system.
Useful molecules such as some water and gases, can freely diffuse across, while others like glucose and amino acids are actively transported to where they are needed. Often drugs are designed to specifically pass the BBB in order to manage health, but so too can most recreational drugs. Suffice to say, it is a critical part of brain function.
Dysfunction of the BBB can result in leakage of circulating substances, an inadequate supply of nutrients and a build up of toxins. This in turn leads to inflammation of the special cells forming the BBB, oxidative stress and neuronal damage. This BBB disruption has been shown in patients suffering from stroke, multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease. Those most at risk are people who are exposed to long-term stress. They may think that they can handle the pressure, but the erosion over time might not be noticed until it is too late. Incidentally, it is worth mentioning that the BBB is incomplete in new born babies, rendering them particularly vulnerable.
9 — Avoidance of Toxins — chiefly Fluoride and Aluminium.
Absolutely no part of our bodies requires either of these elements. Fluoride is poisonous, at any concentration, and is not excreted by our bodies (L. Valdez-Jimenez et al, Centro University, Lagos, 2010). In fact, it binds to aluminium, allowing it to pass across the blood-brain barrier, where it accumulates in the central nervous system. Chronic dosages are linked to behavioural disorders and degenerative changes and abnormalities in the metabolism of neurons. (Lubkowska et al, 2004).
Years of exposure result in changes to brain structure and biochemistry that have a direct impact on neurological development of individuals as well as cognitive developments such as learning and memory. Valdez-Jimenez concludes in published studies, that avoidance of all fluoride, particularly in children is vital. This includes foods which have a build-up of fluoride in the tissues, such as fish and meat products, as well as fluoridated water, foods, toothpaste and non-stick coating which uses Polytetrafluoroethene, or Teflon.
In a study from 2013, Akinrinade and colleagues, found that fluoride and aluminium disrupt neurotransmitter synthesis, thus reducing brain function even more.
Things you can do to prevent cognitive decline.
The usual things like exercise, not smoking, not drinking to excess, eating well, and avoiding recreational drugs, will all aid brain health. In addition to this, a diet rich in vitamins, minerals, proteins and fibre, plus foods with antioxidant properties is key, as is undisturbed sleep cycles.
The less obvious factors could include learning a new language or musical instrument. Studies show that both these activities ward off cognitive decline at any age. Linked to this is a warning against retiring too early. An inactive mind, as well as body has a negative impact on our brains.
Finally, a lasting message regarding the pseudo-science surrounding the benefits of fluoride. It behoves you to do your due diligence and research the truth about this toxic element. Where there is fluoridated water, there is ill brain health — it’s as simple as that.
I would question the validity of claims that surfactant application of fluoride in toothpaste is beneficial to teeth, and harmless to our bodies. In truth, our mouths are just as capable of absorbing chemicals as our intestines, hence the proliferation of oral delivery systems such as angina sprays, and migraine wafers. The World Health Organisation has classed Fluoride as dangerous to health and the medical journal, The Lancet, recently recommended that Fluoride be reclassified as a neurotoxin, along with lead, arsenic, PCBs and toluene.
Note from the writer
This is not intended as a rant against one specific and contentious element, but to urge you to research precisely what you are putting into your body. Dogmatic research into the constituents of my own water supply, revealed telling evidence of metal elements, particularly Nickel. For those of you, like me, who have a Nickel allergy, knowing this would have saved ten years of IBS treatment.
Water supplies to my parents’ house have a known pesticide problem due to run off from agricultural land. The water authorities are aware of this, and are ‘working with landowners to resolve the issue’. In the meantime, people are still drinking water with pesticides. A quick search online will turn up dozens of related studies, including that of Dr. Sarah McKenzie-Ross, UCL, Clinical, Educational and Health Psychology, who states:
“The analysis reveals that the majority of well-designed studies undertaken over the last 20 years find a significant association between low-level exposure to organophosphates and impaired cognitive function.”
Please, ladies and gentlemen, take note of what you are consuming.