November is Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, so I thought it was fitting to talk about simple lifestyle measures we all can take to protect our cherished brain health. I have a dear friend who was telling me about her two friends and the health outcomes of their mothers. One friend’s Mom died 20 years ago of a sudden heart attack, yet the other friend’s Mom has been suffering from Alzheimer’s for the past 20 years. The friend whose mother has Alzheimer’s feels as though she lost her mother 20 years ago when she contracted the disease, equating the death of her Mom’s mind to her real death, with the additional untold pain that accompanies this insidious disease. She says it would have been a blessing for her mother to have suffered from a sudden heart attack.
To date there is no drug that can totally arrest the devastating disease of Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia. Worldwide, nearly 44 million people have Alzheimer’s or a related dementia, yet only 1 in 4 have been diagnosed. Alzheimer’s and other dementias have the unfavorable distinction of being the top cause of disabilities later in life. The microscopic hallmarks of this disease are an accumulation of beta-amyloid protein plaques coupled with abnormal tau protein tangles. This picture shows the stark differences of a normal brain vs. one literally shrunken by Alzheimer’s:
As a nation, America cannot afford the price tag that comes with the disease, estimated at $226 billion in 2015 and expected to exponentially increase with our aging baby boomer population by 2050:
So why not get back to basics and go for preventative, inexpensive, scientifically proven measures that give our brain a mental “boost” and also may reduce the chances of brain diseases like Alzheimer’s?
I suggest three plans of attack for preserving your brain health, based largely on the works of Dr. David Perlmutter, neurologist and author of Brain Maker. Dr. Perlmutter’s own father, once a respected neurosurgeon, has also been suffering from Alzheimer’s for decades.
You can start implementing these changes today, with little dent in your pocketbook:
1. Control Inflammation-Sustained inflammation is the root of many chronic diseases like Alzheimer’s.
A. Check your sugars at the door– “Elevated blood sugar stirs up inflammation in the bloodstream, as excess sugar can be toxic if it’s not swept up and used by the cells then triggering a reaction called glycation (Brain Maker).” Glycation occurs when a sugar errantly binds with fats and proteins, producing deformed molecule called AGE (advanced glycolated end products). The body and yes, the brain doesn’t recognize this deformed sugar protein and sets off an inflammatory response to combat it. Researchers have coined Alzheimer’s as Type III diabetes because of the relationship of poor blood sugar control (insulin resistance) and Alzheimer’s disease. This “brain” insulin resistance causes two major effects to contribute to the Alzheimer’s diagnosis, both loss of cognition and formation of those “hallmark” beta amyloid protein plaques. But the real story here is the link between modestly elevated sugar levels, actually far below conventionally recognized diabetic levels, having a correlation to dementia as shown in a study of greater than 2000 individuals whose average age was greater than 76 years old in “Glucose Levels and Risk of Dementia” New England Journal of Medicine 2013.
Lifestyle action plan-Limit refined sugar in all forms, be it soda, alcohol, high fructose corn syrup or white flour products and reach for the natural sweeteners like honey, real maple syrup and whole fruits. I heartily recommend berries as your go-to for a lower sugar yet highly nutritious whole fruit option. All berries, but predominantly blueberries have the distinction of having the greatest brain-boosting punch (See SUPERFOOD RECIPES-Sweet Endings with Berries). Below is a dessert, yes I said dessert that I heartily recommend. I really believe the key to having dessert on a regular basis is limiting them to a one serving dish; that is my secret. This is a reduced fat and sugar dessert that is limited to one serving and the star is blueberries!
B. Know which fats can be your friend-
1) Omega 3 EPA/DHA (fish oil) is the real star for brain health. First an essential fatty acid primer: Omega 6 and Omega 3s are essential fatty acids that your body cannot make. In general, Omega 6 oils are pro-inflammatory and Omega 3s are anti-inflammatory. The balance should be 1:1 or 2:1 Omega 6 (corn and soybean oils)/Omega 3 (fish oil, flaxseed, walnuts). However, over the last 100 years, because our animals are corn and soybean fed and we use Omega 6s as additives to our foods, the balance is more like 20:1, which puts our bodies in a more pro-inflammatory state. It will help you to think of Omega 3 EPA/DHA (fish oil) as an extinguisher for that chronic inflammatory fire burning within that is the beginning of all chronic diseases, like cancer, heart disease or Alzheimer’s. Let’s get to the meat of the brain matter now: Alzheimer patients typically exhibit shrinking brain volume as a sign of their disease. In the 1/22/14 issue of Neurology, patients with higher levels of Omega 3 fatty acids found in fish oil had larger brain volumes, equivalent to 1-2 years of brain health.
2) Monosaturated fats (avocadoes, olive oil, nuts, olives) found in abundance in the Mediterranean diet also support brain health. In the 2013 Journal of Neurosurgery and Psychiatry a study was made of elderly people consuming a Mediterranean diet, high in monosaturated fats. Over a 6 year period , subjects gobbling up the mono-unsaturates maintained cognitive function at a much higher level than participants on a low-fat diet.
Lifestyle action plan– Eat fish high in EPA/DHA on a regular basis, and supplement daily if you can’t (see CYH with EPA/DHA). Adopt olive oil for your daily cooking needs, throwing in olives and avocados as garnishes for your meals. Limit sources of Omega 6 oils, i.e. corn and soybean and saturated fats. Totally eliminate fake, man made fats (A/K/A trans-fats), your body doesn’t even understand how to metabolize them. But, I still use and will always use butter sparingly, as it adds great flavor to a dish. I go for the grass-fed version of butter to maximize those Omega 3s. I believe that if you’re eating a diet dominated by healthy fats, you can splurge sparingly with flavor enhancing meats like bacon or prosciutto. It’s all in the whole context, right?
2. Boost your gut’s good bugs and get rid of the “stinkers”– First a little “gut” education. The large intestine has anywhere from 10,000 to 35,000 different microorganisms that assist with the digestion of your food. These microorganisms or bugs are KEY to your immune system. It is estimated that your gut’s immune system “represents anywhere from 70-80% of your body’s total immune system (Brain Maker).” Now here’s the brain connection, the gut is called “the second brain” because it possesses an almost infinite amount of neurons. As an example, it’s estimated the 80-90% of serotonin, the “feel good” neurotransmitter, is manufactured in the gut. Now that’s just the beginning! Everyday more and more brain-gut connections are discovered! Now here comes the part you really need to be concerned with. Your gut, A/K/A gatekeeper is lined with one layer of epithelial cells, to keep the bad microorganisms out and to keep in and absorb the necessary nutrients you need from your food. When your intestinal layer is compromised you are susceptible to all matter of health challenges through increased inflammation like celiac disease, autism, food allergies, and yes, Alzheimer’s. The gut can be compromised in any manner, i.e. antibiotics or environmental toxins if there isn’t a strong defense on board in the form of healthy gut bacteria. So you may ask, “How can I make sure I have good gut bacteria?” Glad you asked! The quality of your diet is your primary “soldier” guarding your intestinal walls. What has happened with our Western diet of primarily refined sugars, processed meats, insufficient fiber, chemical additives to our foods to increase shelf life plus paltry nutrients has had the effect of taking our gut “soldiers” out of action. Having the effect of offering no protection to our gut wall, leading to a condition called “leaky gut”. Thereby opening up our immune system to all matter of disease, including Alzheimer’s.
Lifestyle Action Plan–Eat a wide spectrum of vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, healthy fats and lean proteins to support those good bacteria in your gut. Consuming foods considered high in prebiotics, or foods feeding the good bacteria in your gut such as bananas, honey, onions, leeks, garlic, legumes, leafy greens, asparagus, maple syrup and artichokes is key! And coffee consumers, I have good news!! Drinking the equivalent of five cups per day has been shown to decrease the risk of Alzheimer’s by 65% as compared to low consumers of the morning Joe, ( Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease), again believed to have those protective effects of prebiotics. Finally, foods that inoculate your gut with good bacteria, replacing lost bacteria from an outside assault are fermented foods like yogurt with “live active cultures”, kimchi, sauerkraut, miso and kefir. Now before you dismiss this suggestion of fermented foods, thinking this is some crazy-good-for-you-but-tastes-really-bad suggestion, I challenge you to whip up the breakfast dish I have listed below. Just take leftover whole grains, kimchi (you can make the recipe or buy it in the store) and a fried egg. My husband Randy gave it his thumbs up for taste and it passes my thumbs up for gut and brain health! See SUPERFOOD RECIPES-Gut Health Foods for the recipes:
3.Work up a sweat with your body and mind-
A. Physical Exercise is good for your mind-The results of three new trials reported at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference 2015 holds welcome promise in many areas of brain health. Convincing evidence was presented that regular aerobic exercise reduces the risk of dementias like Alzheimer’s disease, decrease in neuropsychiatric symptoms (like anxiety, irritability or depression), decrease in the levels of those abnormal tau protein tangles (indicative of Alzheimer’s) and increased blood flow for memory and processing.
Lifestyle Action Plan- Exercise can be done anytime and anywhere. Don’t let the fact you don’t have a gym membership stop you! Just a little fast tip that makes exercise something you should be able to fit into anyone of your fast-paced days: set the timer for 30 minutes and go to town! This is my girls and I on summer day this past year doing our exercise routine on our front porch. We set the timer and did reps of 10 aerobic then 10 strength training for the entire 30 minutes. Believe me, it was a workout and it fit into our busy schedules!
B. Mental Exercise makes you young– The Archives of Neurology May, 2012 conducted PET brain scans on three groups of average age 76 year olds looking for mental stimulation brain factors: 65 healthy “older” folks, 10 patients with Alzheimer’s and eleven 25 year olds. The not so surprising findings were that the older folks that had the most mental stimulation in the form of crossword puzzles, games and books in their early to middle years, had the least amount of beta-amyloid protein plaques, giving them brains comparable to kids 25 years younger than them!
Lifestyle Action Plan- Always strive to be a lifetime learner. Learn a new language, pick up a new hobby or when you have free time, do like my mother-in-law Pat Tobler has done for the past 40 years that I’ve known her, do crossword puzzles to keep your mind sharp. Believe me, I have one smart, sharp-minded mother-in-law at the age of 80!
Recap of Simple Lifestyle Choices To Protect Your Brain:
1. Control inflammation by checking your sugars at the door and knowing which fats are your friends.
2. Boost Your belly’s good bugs and get rid of the stinkers!
3. Work up a sweat with your mind and body!
As always, the following is a recipe that proves you can eat gourmet tasting home-cooked meals that are also incredibly healthy with good fats like those in salmon and olive oil (for fighting inflammation) kale and shallots (for prebiotics to feed those healthy belly bugs) and a small amount of comfort food fats for flavor. Tip: The crunchy salmon skin in this recipe is not only delicious but it also offers 250 mg. of those inflammation-fighting Omega 3s!
SMASHED BACONY SWEET POTATOES WITH KALE AND
12 oz. sweet potatoes
1 tsp. sherry
¾ tsp. kosher salt
2 smoked bacon slices, thinly sliced crosswise into matchstick pieces
½ cup finely chopped shallots
1 T. olive oil, divided
5 cups packed coarsely chopped kale, large stems removed
½ cup unsalted chicken stock, divided
1 tsp. finely chopped fresh rosemary
½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper, divided
4 (6 ounce) skin-on salmon fillets
¼ cup half and half
4 fresh flat-leaf parsley sprigs
- Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
- Place potatoes in a large saucepan; cover with cool water to 2 inches above potatoes. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 20 minutes or until almost tender; drain. Place potatoes on a work surface, and crush each with a thick, sturdy glass; you want the potatoes broken open but still fairly intact. Sprinkle with vinegar and 1/8 tsp salt.
- Heat a large heavy skillet over medium heat. Add bacon; cook 3 minutes or until almost crisp. Add shallots to pan; cook 2 to 3 minutes or until bacon is crisp and shallots are browned, stirring occasionally. Remove bacon and shallots from pan with a slotted spoon, reserving any drippings. Add 2 tsp. oil to drippings to pan. Increase heat to medium-high. Add potatoes in an even layer; cook 2 minutes or until potatoes begin to lightly brown on bottom. Add kale, ¼ cup stock, and rosemary. Reduce heat to medium. Cover and cook 2 minutes or until kale is almost tender (you want it still chewy). Uncover and drizzle with remaining ¼ cup stock if too dry; it should be a bit moist. Stir in reserved bacon mixture, ¼ tsp. salt and ¼ tsp. pepper. Keep warm.
- Sprinkle tops of salmon fillets with remaining 3/8 tsp. salt and remaining ¼ tsp. pepper. Heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat until a drop of water evaporates quickly when dropped on it.
- Add remaining 1 tsp. oil to pan; swirl to coat. Add salmon fillets, skin side down; cook, without turning, for 3 minutes. Place pan in oven (salmon should still be skin side dow); cook 7 minutes or until a thermometer registers 130 degrees and salmon is still medium-rare within.
- Just before serving, add half-and-half to potato mixture; stir gently just to incorporate. Immediately place 1 cup potato mixture on each of 4 plates; top each serving with 1 salmon fillet, skin side up.
*Recipe adapted from Cooking Light