June being Alzheimer’s & Brain Awareness Month gives us an opportunity to learn more about this fatal disease that more than 5.8 million Americans age 65 and older are living with, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. The nonprofit research organization estimates that 13.8 million people age 65 and older are projected to have Alzheimer’s dementia by 2050.
It’s difficult to face such sobering numbers let alone talk about them, but having a conversation about the brain, Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias is exactly what’s needed to combat this enemy. Doctors and researchers acknowledge that ongoing studies have revealed just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding how the human brain works and the factors that impact memory and decision-making. One lengthy study by the National Institutes of Health is following a group of “super seniors” age 90 and older over several years to collect information about how age affects brain function. The newsmagazine program 60 Minutes recently broadcast an update report on the study’s participants; what has been learned so far points to more questions than answers.
Know that all of us—seniors, adult daughters and sons who have an aging loved one in our lives, someone who wants to know how to avoid Alzheimer’s or another dementia—can help to end this epidemic by learning more, sharing what you know with others and adopting healthy practices that might stave off the disease. Keep reading for some thoughts on how the human brain works.
Preserving the Brain
Have you ever noticed how kids seem to pick up on things quickly; things that take most adults forever to learn? This is because brain plasticity (or the ability of the brain to build neural connections and develop in a positive way) is naturally much stronger in childhood and decreases as people age. For quite some time, the scientific community has held that brain plasticity slows down in the teenage years and comes to a near halt in adulthood. Though this is true to a great extent, growing evidence indicates that there are a variety of things an individual can do to significantly increase neuroplasticity in the adult brain. This realization is one that is of great interest to aging seniors who may have a genetic predisposition towards Alzheimer’s or dementia, as well as for adults who might have (or have inclinations towards) other mental or developmental disorders.
What is BDNF?
BDNF, or Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor, is a secreted protein that is encoded by the BDNF gene in humans. Its role is to act on certain neurons within the brain to help support the survival of existing neurons and to encourage the growth and differentiation of new neurons (a process known as neurogenesis) and of synapses. High levels of BDNF will increase a person’s capacity for things like learning and memory by strengthening the communication between specific neurons. What if you could change your ability to learn easier and more quickly and could enhance the capacity of your own memory? Interestingly enough, you can. Several disciplines, practices and medicines have been shown to directly increase BDNF (or reduce or eliminate the reduction of BDNF) and to increase neurogenesis in humans.
Physical exercise has been shown to directly increase BDNF and neurogenesis, which in turn increases an individual’s memory and capacity for learning. A researcher and neuroscientist named Richard G. Morris demonstrated this in mice in an experiment called the “Morris water maze.” His experiment showed that mice who exercised (by running on a wheel) performed much better at tests of intelligence and mental fortitude than mice who had not. This has also been demonstrated in humans in multiple experiments, including one published in 2011 by the Journal of Translational Psychiatry. What this means is that exercise, even if only a few times a week, can drastically increase an individual’s capacity for learning and can significantly improve their memory. Because of this, exercise is vital to sustained mental health.
Omega-3 fatty acids regulate signal transduction and gene expression and protect neurons from death. Through several studies, Omega-3 supplementation has been shown to provide protection against reduced brain plasticity and impaired learning (i.e. after traumatic brain injury). What this means for individuals with a genetic predisposition towards Alzheimer’s and dementia is that Omega-3s can lower one’s risk and can help protect a person’s brain as they age. Supplementing with Omega-3 pills once a day is an excellent way to provide an additional level of protection against the debilitating effects of Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Exercise Your Mind
In a study by Joe Verhese, M.D. it was discovered that subjects who did crossword puzzles four days a week had a 47% lower risk of dementia than subjects who did a crossword puzzle just once a week.
Constant mental challenges by various stimuli increase the production and interconnectivity of neurons and of BDNF, as well as preventing the loss of connections and cell death. The Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) clinical trial is the United States’ largest study of cognitive training performed to date. In it, researchers discovered that improvements in cognitive ability via mental stimulation counteract the degree of long-term cognitive decline among seniors. The results were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2002, and showed significant percentages of the near 3,000 individual participants over the age of 65 who trained for five weeks for around 2½ hours per week improving information-processing speed, memory, and reasoning abilities.
In short, keep your mind active. Do puzzles, read a book, or download an app on your smart phone that will allow you to exercise key areas of your brain (such as Lumosity’s “Brain Trainer”).
Oddly enough, going hungry from time to time can also improve your mind. Research has shown that occasional fasting can improve BDNF. Individuals with diabetes or other conditions which might make skipping meals dangerous should not engage in fasting, which is why it is important to consult your doctor before doing so. That said, research on mice and in humans has found that an intermittent fasting regimen can normalize BDNF and protect against its reduction, against the onset of motor dysfunction, and can actually increase one’s lifespan.
Like Indian or Thai food? An ingredient found in curry known as turmeric has actually been shown to increase BDNF and to boost brain health. Also known as Indian Saffron, turmeric is the spice which gives curry its rich aroma and amber colorin, and contains an ingredient known as curcumin. Research has shown that even moderate consumption of curcumin can enhance BDNF and can increase neurogenesis.
Mediation has been shown to reduce the production of stress hormones (such as stress-cortisol secretion) and can have neuroprotective effects which preserve BDNF. This means that taking time to meditate a few times a day or engaging in activities such as yoga may preserve cognition and prevent dementia.
A combination of all of the above practices is an excellent way to protect yourself against the debilitating effects of Alzheimer’s and dementia in the later years of your life. At Amada Senior Care, our trained caregivers, advisors and placement specialists understand how the effects of Alzheimer’s and dementia affect individuals and their loved ones and specialize in easing this burden for families. For more information and tips on care for loved ones with Alzheimer’s or dementia, contact your local Amada office by visiting http://amadaseniorcare.com/locations/ or calling 877-442-6232.
Those who want to spread awareness of brain health and Alzheimer’s are invited to “Go Purple” this month to help educate others and show your commitment to addressing this public health issue. This Alzheimer’s Association campaign encourages you to wear purple and share a photo of your outfit on social media with the hashtag #ENDALZ. When you wear purple on June 21, you’ll be raising awareness on The Longest Day, a sunrise-to-sunset event to honor those facing Alzheimer’s with strength, passion and endurance. Click on Go Purple to learn more.
“Improving Brain Plasticity Key to Fighting Alzheimer’s and Other Dementias” by Jeremy Brooker and Michelle Flores, Amada Blog contributors. The contents of this blog are not meant to be used as medical advice. Before implementing any dietary or exercise changes or beginning a nutritional or fitness plan, consult with your doctor.