Do you ever feel like your brain is fluttering around like a lost helium balloon on a breezy day? Words slipping away before you can yank them from the far corners of your mind?
If you ask people over sixty what they fear most about aging, dementia and Alzheimer’s are at the top of the list. That would be my answer as well. It’s a scary thought, but it’s not inevitable. Protecting this jello-like glob of fat and protein is a developing theme here at Artful-Aging. I’m in this for the long haul (life in general), so I’m determined to make the best of my brainpower, regardless of my genetic quirks. And yes, I have a few. We all do. Most of us didn’t start out with an unlimited amount of fundamental brilliance, so creating a stimulating and healthy environment for the aging brain is important. That environment can either support or undermine genetic potential. I want to coax out every smarty-pants gene I have and send the less-then-nifty variants into retirement. Here’s my field guide on how to do that.
Artful-Aging’s Field Guide for Brain Health
What to do
- The nutrition basics — Choose a diet rich in organic whole foods, including lots of leafy greens (kale, chard, beet greens, collards, spinach), a variety of vegetables (beets, broccoli, cauliflower) and fruit (berries, pears, apples), healthy fats (olive oil, coconut oil, avocados, nuts, seeds), a low intake of dairy and meat, a moderate intake of wild-caught fish, garlic and onions, herbs and spices, and maybe an occasional glass of red wine. As for the controversial subject of grains, skip the gluten-containing grains and opt for gluten-free oats, brown or wild rice, buckwheat, teff, or quinoa. This isn’t the whole story, but it makes for a good basic foundation.
- Skip processed foods, fast food, sugar, excessive alcohol, preservatives, additives, dyes — anything “food-like” that is not actually food. The closer you stay to the source, the better. Eat an organic apple rather than store-bought apple sauce.
- Speaking of sugar and processed foods, research shows that a diet high in refined carbohydrates and gluten is a recipe for cognitive decline. Fasting blood glucose levels (a lab test to measure the amount of sugar in the blood after an 8 hour or longer fast) above 100 may indicate insulin resistance and potential diabetes, which in turn, increases the risk for brain disease. Have your fasting blood glucose and hemoglobin A1C levels checked and do your best to keep those numbers in normal ranges.
- Boost your intake of B vitamins. Folate, B6, and B12 are important vitamins for brain health. Once again, leafy greens are at the top of the list. Add beans, lentils, peas, sweet potatoes, citrus fruit, cantaloupe, and most any green vegetable to your shopping cart. For the most part, I believe in getting nutrients from food, but B12 is one that might have to come in supplement form, especially if you don’t eat many animal products. It’s worth having your B12 levels tested. Many “older” people are deficient and research indicates B12 is necessary for brain health.
- Vitamin E is also important. Increase your intake of organic seeds, nuts, broccoli, avocados, sweet potatoes, and spinach.
- Research indicates that low levels of vitamin D are associated with “substantial” cognitive decline in the elderly population. Other studies show a possible relationship between vitamin D deficiency and increased risk of Parkinson’s disease. Have your levels checked. I was surprised to find myself deficient. And I know better! For more information about vitamin D, check this article I wrote in 2009 for my other blog, Gluten-Free For Good.
- No brain-healthy field guide would be complete without a lesson in navigation. Navigation is the study (or skill) of awareness, position and direction. I’ve done a lot of backpacking (map and compass navigation) in my life, so applying this route-finding metaphor to brain health makes sense to me. Awareness, position and direction can also apply to the motor control area of the brain — the cerebellum. Its main function is to evaluate how well movements initiated by the motor areas of the brain are being carried out. If the main motor areas aren’t skillfully doing their jobs, the cerebellum detects the discrepancies and via a complex network of feedback loops, attempts to correct the problem. When you trip, your cerebellum kicks in, you flail around a bit, but you catch yourself before you do a face plant. At least, that’s the idea. This under-appreciated little brain structure keeps tabs on the position and movement of the body and if it’s working at full capacity, it keeps us balanced and upright. It accounts for only 10% of brain mass, but contains about half the neurons (specialized nerve cells) in the brain. Cerebellar ataxia is one of the most common neurological manifestations of gluten intolerance. If you have balance problems, dizziness, or fall frequently, gluten might be the problem. For more information on gluten and neurological conditions, check this article I wrote 2 years ago.
- Build up your cognitive reserve. Invest in your brain circuitry via intellectual stimulation. It’s just like physical exercise — use it or lose it.
Rentz DM, Locascio JJ, et al. “Cognition, Reserve, and Amyloid Deposition in Normal Aging.” Annals of Neurology. 2010 March;67(3):353–364.
Llewellyn DJ, Lang IA, et al. “Vitamin D and Risk of Cognitive Decline in Elderly Persons.” Arch Intern Med. 2010 July;170(13):1135-1141
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