This week is Dementia Awareness Week 21st – 27th May . Degenerative diseases of the brain such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Dementia are reaching almost epidemic proportions these days, and many of us have been ‘touched’ by this epidemic through friends and family who suffer, or have died, from these conditions. 30 million people are affected by Alzheimer’s globally and this is likely to rise to 160 million by 2050. It is the 3rd leading cause of death in USA and the leading cause of death for women in England and Wales (2nd for men).
Conventional thinking is that these diseases are either an inevitable part of growing old, or due to a genetic fluke, or even just bad luck. It is now becoming more accepted, however, that diet and lifestyle can have a huge impact on brain health. Indeed where once we thought that brain cells, once lost could not be replaced, we now know that the process of neurogenisis – creating new brain cells – can be increased by three to five times at any age, and the food we eat and the exercise we take can either protect us from, or speed our route to, developing cognitive decline.
The key factors for preventing cognitive decline are as follows:
- Eat plenty of vegetables (at least 5 portions – a palm-full of each – per day not including potatoes) and no more than 2 low sugar fruits (e.g. berries, citrus, apples, pear) per day. The antioxidants in fruit and veg help protect the brain against damaging free radical activity.
- Eat less sugar and refined carbohydrates. As far back as 2005, studies began to appear which revealed a correlation between insulin and brain cell deterioration. Research now shows that insulin resistance may be one of the major factors that starts the brain damage cascade. Cut out high sugar/carb foods such as cereals, pasta, white rice, bread, biscuits, dried fruit, sugary drinks and replace with good quality protein, healthy fats, veggies and moderate amounts of complex carbohydrate
- Reduce “AGEs” in your food. Advanced Glycation End Products (AGEs) are substances naturally produced in our bodies and our food, however if we are exposed to excessive amounts they can cause damage and destruction to all bodily tissues and cells. Research links excessive exposure to AGEs to Alzheimer’s disease. Limit your exposure to AGEs by choosing fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, beans, chickpeas, lentils, soy, tofu, milk, eggs. Avoid fast and processed foods and limit poor quality animal-derived products and processed fats.
- Modify your cooking methods – some cooking methods increase the AGE content of food so:
- Avoid high temperature dry heat cooking methods such as roasting, grilling, chargrilling, frying, deep-frying, broiling and BBQ.
- Choose instead to cook with “moist” heat at lower temperatures – eg. boiling, poaching and steaming, slow cooking such as stews and casseroles
- Acidic ingredients such as lemon juice or vinegar can help to reduce AGE production whilst cooking.
- Eat high quality healthy fats. Fat is really important for brain health and the Omega 3 fats are particularly important for the brain as well as for heart, joints, hormones, metabolism, mood, energy, skin, hair etc. Eat smaller oily fish such as sardines, pilchards, trout, plus flaxseed, grass fed beef, chickens & eggs, avocadoes, nuts, seeds, coconut oil, and/or consider a good quality Omega 3 Fish Oil supplement.
- Avoid highly processed, refined vegetable oils, such as sunflower, canola/rapeseed etc.
- Increase the time between meals and do intermittent fasting. Increasing the amount of time between meals raises levels of Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) which increases the rate of neurogenisis. It also improves insulin sensitivity, and enables the process of “autophagy” where the body eats up and eliminates metabolic waste products. Try to leave 12 – 14 hours between dinner and breakfast, 4 -5 hours between meals, and regular fasting days (or a stay at Homefield!) can be very beneficial
- Avoid alcohol. Even moderate alcohol consumption reduces neurogenesis by 40% and also decreases BDNF.
- Stress depletes all nutrients in the body, and particularly affects brain function. Try not to overwork, adapt appropriate stress management techniques such as meditation, yoga, ta’ chi, mindfulness etc., and make time for a creative or enjoyable hobby
- Keep your brain engaged and active. Rather than sitting in front of the telly, do crosswords, puzzles, play chess or bridge, get a “mind game” app.
- Finally – exercise. There’s no getting away from it – Exercise is really important to support optimal cognitive function by increasing flow of blood and oxygen to the brain, improving coordination, mood, insulin sensitivity and keeping weight down.