Brain health is big news. There are a number of brain-related conditions on the rise including depression, multiple sclerosis and dementia.
Dementia is one that is becoming of increasing concern to governments worldwide. There are different types of dementia, of which Alzheimer’s is the most common. With Alzheimer’s, the chemistry and structure of the brain changes, leading to the death of brain cells.
There is no cure for dementia and the precise causes haven’t been identified. However, we do know that dementia doesn’t manifest overnight. And, did you know that only one in 100 cases of Alzheimer’s is caused by genes?
There are over 850,000 people in the UK living with dementia and worldwide, the number is a massive 44 million. This is set to double by 2030. That is only 14 years away, which means that there is a possibility that the way we are living right now can impact our neurological health just a few years down the road.
Prevention is always better than cure, so this article provides some basic information on how to care for your brain throughout your life. Having a forward-looking approach to everyday health can help you and your family future-proof your well-being for decades to come.
RISK FACTORS FOR DEMENTIA
According to the World Alzheimer Report in 2014, smoking, high blood pressure and unmanaged diabetes are some of the key risk factors for developing dementia in later life. In fact, the correlation between diabetes and Alzheimer’s has prompted some researchers to refer to Alzheimer’s as ‘diabetes type 3’.
Certainly managing blood sugar can result in profound improvements in a number of conditions, but I think there is more to Alzheimer’s than just blood sugar control. What is fairly clear, is that what we eat, how we move and how we feel can possibly influence whether dementia will affect us in the future. So, it’s what we do in our younger years that can make a big difference to the quality of our lives as we age.
NUTRITION TIPS FOR A HEALTHY BRAIN
The following tips provide some pointers on how to eat well now, to ensure that your brain is receiving all the nutrients it needs.
- Get your B’s (B6, B12 and folate).
These three nutrients are critical for ensuring that your body clears an amino acid called homocysteine. High levels of homocysteine are bad news in general, but have been closely associated with Alzheimer’s.
Nutrition tip: Eat leafy green vegetables every day: broccoli, spinach, cabbage, kale, chard, watercress and sea vegetables are excellent sources of B6 and folate. B12 is found in animal products, so ensure you include things like eggs, organic chicken, grass fed beef and lamb and some dairy in your diet. Vegans should consider a B12 supplement.
- Healthy Fats = Healthy Brain (omega 3 fatty acids).
A number of studies have reported significant benefits of omega 3 fatty acids on cognitive decline. In fact, much of the brain is made of DHA, a type of omega 3. Some studies have found that lower levels of DHA are associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s.
Omega 3 also has potent anti-inflammatory properties. Inflammation is being investigated as a contributing factor in dementia, so a diet rich in anti-inflammatory nutrients can be very important.
Nutrition tip: Focus on eating foods rich in omega 3. The best sources are oily fish: herring, mackerel, sardines and wild Alaskan salmon (avoid farmed salmon). Milled flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp and walnuts are good vegetable sources of omega 3. Incorporate the vegetable sources of omega 3 into your diet regularly and aim for 2-3 portions of oily fish per week. Young children, women of childbearing age and pregnant women should aim for 1-2 portions.
- Reduce Sugar.
Besides predisposing you to diabetes, imbalanced blood sugar can result in inflammation, mood disruption, fatigue and poor immunity. Sugar does not only come from sweet foods – simple carbohydrates can also spike blood glucose levels.
Nutrition tip: Choose foods high in fibre and avoid processed carbohydrates and sugary foods. Easy changes include swapping white bread for wholegrain bread, white potatoes for sweet potatoes and limiting sweets and sugary foods to occasional treats. Eat plenty of vegetables and make sure your snacks contain protein, fat and/or protein. Try swapping your mid-afternoon biscuit with oatcakes and almond butter or hummus.
- Look after Your Gut.
New studies are revealing the connection between the gut and the brain. In fact our gut is also called the ‘second brain’. We are coming to understand the critical role that gut health plays in all types of chronic conditions. In particular studies have shown that what is happening in the microbiome can influence inflammation in the brain.
The good news is that we can positively impact our microbiomes by what we eat.
Nutrition tip: Eat foods with plenty of fibre (that’s what the good bacteria need to thrive): whole grains and vegetables are your best sources. Also include foods that already contain beneficial bacteria – these include plain yoghurt with live cultures, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut and my favourite, kimchi.
AN INTEGRATED APPROACH
Good nutrition is one part of a lifestyle approach to future-proofing your health. These food tips are a good start, but should be part of an integrated approach to wellness that includes stress management, sleep and activity.
If you have any questions, feel free to post them to my Facebook page.
If you would like to read more about dementia, here are some hand-picked resources: