Keep your brain young

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

January 2007

Most hunter-gatherers die before they reach the age of 70 but of those that do, almost none have senile dementia or Alzheimer Disease. In our advanced civilization, blessed as we are with medical miracles and creature comforts, about 10 percent of persons over the age of 70 have significant memory loss and the percentage rises steeply as aging progresses. Half of those are afflicted with Alzheimer's disease. Could there be a link between dementia and our modern lifestyle?

Chronic diseases that didn't exist in the Stone Age not only shorten our lives, they rob us of memory and mental ability. Here are six steps that you can begin today that will help you to keep your brain — and your body — young.

1. Get moving. Physical activity opens up blood vessels and keeps them flexible so that blood flow increases. That allows oxygen and nutrients to get to all the cells in your brain as well as other organs and helps to remove waste products. Several studies make it clear that persons who exercise have lower rates of Alzheimer Disease and other forms of dementia. Walk briskly for at least 30 minutes on most days of the week; an hour is better.

2. Keep your blood sugar in the normal range. Glucose (blood sugar) is almost the only source of energy for your brain but levels that are higher than normal actually lower thinking ability and memory. Carbohydrates are good but they should come from vegetables, fruit and whole-grain baked goods and cereals, not from sugary soft drinks, pastry, french fries and those pound-and-a-half servings of pasta that you'll find in most restaurants.

3. Get vitamins and minerals beyond the minimum daily requirements. When the intake of plant-based B-vitamins such as folic acid goes up, dementia goes down. Vitamin B12 is also a key to a healthy brain. Fish are an excellent source, especially salmon and they also provide generous amounts of omega-3 fatty acids.

4. Avoid foul fats. Persons with a high intake of either saturated fat or trans fat are more likely to develop Alzheimer Disease. When you shop, select packaged foods with no trans fat — a task that is easier than ever because of new labeling laws. There are plenty of ways to cut back on saturated fat: leaner cuts of meat, low-fat dairy products, fewer fried foods.

5. Keep the pressure down. Small increases in blood pressure, even in children, result in measurable changes in thinking ability and problem-solving. In older adults high blood pressure is an important cause of stroke.

6. Go back to school. If a flabby brain were as easy to spot as a flabby body it might induce us to do more mental calisthenics. When you exercise your brain by learning a language, how to play a musical instrument, operate a computer or even doing crossword puzzles or sudoku you will stimulate your brain cells to form new connections.

Getting older doesn't take away our mental machinery unless we let it. In fact, some mental skills, especially those that involve judgment and problem-solving, actually improve as we age.

Your brain should last as long as the rest of your body. These few steps go a long way to making that possible.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.