Keep those memories alive
Priyanka Gupta, ND
Memory loss and dementia don't have to be part of the aging process. Learn what you can do to reduce your risk.
Brain health is important at all stages of life. Babies develop their ability to walk and talk. Adolescents learn to negotiate complex calculus problems. And adults juggle multiple personal and work issues. Our ability to develop memories is something that is innately human—and essential to our well-being.
Although the occasional bout of forgetfulness is common among both young and old, more serious memory loss may be associated with more severe problems later in life. Sometimes serious memory loss can be caused by dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. According to the Canadian National Institutes of Health Research, more than 747,000 Canadians are living with Alzheimer’s disease or related dementia. By 2031, the disease is expected to affect 1.4 million people living in this country. While the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease is rising, memory loss and dementia are not necessarily a normal part of the aging process. In fact, many steps can be taken to preserve the optimal functioning of the brain well into our later years. Until recently, scientists were cautious in saying certain lifestyle measures can reduce the risk of developing dementia. However, more research and careful study reveals many factors such as physical activity, a healthy diet, and sufficient sleep have profound effects on the progression of cognitive decline.
We have all heard that exercise is a part of a healthy lifestyle. Known to have positive effects on cardiovascular health and weight loss, exercise has also been shown to help improve cognitive function and memory. In a randomized controlled trial published in May of this year, researchers in Australia looked at the effect of exercise on cognitive function and everyday problem solving abilities. Seniors who participated in mild to moderate exercise were more likely to have less cognitive impairment and were better able to remember previously given facts. Researchers theorize that exercise, especially aerobic exercise, promotes blood flow to areas of the brain that function in memory recall. The added blood flow keeps these areas from decline, in turn helping to prevent dementia and other related diseases. Generally, half an hour of moderate physical activity on most days of the week, totalling 150 minutes a week is recommended, but checking with your health care practitioner before starting an exercise regimen is always advised.
Food and nutrition play a large part in helping to protect us from heart disease and cancer. But certain foods are also key to maintaining cognitive health. Managing our weight is also important; studies have shown that obesity in middle age raises the risk of dementia later in life.
Cold water fish Studies suggest that those who eat fish at least once a week are less likely to develop dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Fish such as halibut, mackerel, salmon, trout, and tuna have high levels of omega-3 fatty acids—specifically docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)—which are positively associated with cognitive health.
Nuts and seeds Nuts such as walnuts, almonds, and pecans, which are good sources of vitamin E, are among the best brain-boosting foods. Walnuts have the added benefit of being a good source of alpha-linolenic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid. On average, one handful of walnuts contains 2,600 mg of omega-3 fatty acids.
Blueberries These small power-packed fruits are ideal for promoting brain functioning. The antioxidants and phytochemicals in blueberries have been linked to improvement in learning and reduction in neurodegenerative oxidative stress.
Broccoli and spinach If Mom told you to always eat your spinach and broccoli—and you did—you’ll be more likely to remember to thank her later in life. Cruciferous and green leafy vegetables are associated with a reduced rate of cognitive decline.
Meditation refers to practices that promote relaxation, mindfulness, or compassion. Most meditation practices involve focusing on a single point, which could mean focusing on breathing or a particular word or mantra, while sitting in a comfortable position. Doctors have long known the benefits of meditation: cardiologists have reported lower blood pressure rates in those who practise meditation, and psychiatrists note lessening in depression symptoms. In 2011, a study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease reported that meditation helped improve cognitive function and blood flow to the brain. Participants were divided into a meditation group and a control (non-meditation) group. After eight weeks, those in the meditation group showed improved memory along with improved blood flow to the brain.
Vital to our well-being, sufficient sleep is critical to proper brain functioning. Sleep disturbances have been thought to initiate the onset of impaired learning and memory. To investigate this phenomenon, researchers at Temple University in Philadelphia conducted research with mice that showed the signs of early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. One group of mice was allowed to sleep for 12 hours in darkness, whereas another group was exposed to 20 hours of light and four hours of darkness. The researchers noted significant learning and memory impairments in the sleep-deprived group, accelerating the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Although the reason is unknown, the study suggests sleepless nights may raise levels of Alzheimer’s markers called tau protein tangles, which disrupt the brain’s ability for learning, forming new memories, and other cognitive functions.
Stress can have numerous effects on our health, from affecting our ability to function on a daily basis to proven risks to our cardiovascular system. However, the latest research is exploring an increased incidence of Alzheimer’s disease in relation to stress. A Swedish study looked at the effects of stressful life issues in women such as divorce and job strain over a four-decade period. Results showed that day-to-day stressors in middle age may give rise to a high risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease in later life. Although the researchers were careful to say that a stressful job does not cause dementia, they did suggest that stress in some people may raise the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Although the exact cause is not known, other research is looking into the relationship between the chemical hormone corticosteroid, which is released into the body’s blood as a stress response, and it’s being found in higher levels in Alzheimer’s patients. Any steps taken to reduce stress are imperative, even from an early age. Whether it is meditation, walking, exercising, watching a movie, or just taking a break, little getaways from the daily grind of work and family commitments can have profound paybacks in later life.
Fish oil Studies have shown that diets rich in fish oil contribute to a significantly lower incidence of memory loss and Alzheimer’s.
Acetyl-L-carnitine Acetyl-L-carnitine reduces the buildup of proteins associated with decreased cognitive function.
Turmeric Turmeric has been known as a powerful antioxidant and an important supplement for Alzheimer’s prevention. Although turmeric can be eaten as a spice, supplement forms can offer higher potency.
Grapeseed extract Animal studies show that grapeseed extract can provide antioxidant protection to brain structures, preventing deposits that give rise to Alzheimer’s disease.
Vitamin E Studies suggest vitamin E is associated with reduced risk of cognitive impairment in older adults and in the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease.