Healthy Brain Strategies
How to Prevent Cognitive Decline
by Linda Sechrist
A healthy brain performs mental processes known as cognition, which is the acquiring of knowledge and understanding by means of thought, experience and the senses. This includes functions and systems such as memory, learning, language, problem solving, decision making, reasoning and intelligence. The aging process, a stroke or a brain injury can cause a mild to severe reduction in healthy brain functioning resulting in impaired memory and concentration, and difficulty in learning new things or making decisions that impact daily living.
Functional medicine experts focused on preventive health care agree on the ABC’s for optimizing the brain and protecting against decline: eating a healthy diet, exercising, reducing inflammation and stress levels, balancing hormone levels, cultivating healthy relationships and getting enough restorative sleep. With their expertise, they are helping to shift the old paradigm of inevitable aging and cognitive decline into a new one based on the brain’s neuroplasticity.
Harvard-trained neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor, author of the bestseller My Stroke of Insight and the recent Whole Brain Living, is a true poster child for demonstrating the brain’s neuroplasticity and ability to recover from a massive stroke. She writes about the congenital neurological brain disorder that became a problem when an arteriovenous malformation exploded in her brain’s left hemisphere. For four hours, she observed her brain functions systemically shutting down one by one. On the afternoon of her stroke, she could not walk, talk, read, write or recall any of her life. Eight years later, she was not only slalom waterskiing again, but also explaining to the world, “We are the life-force power of the universe, with manual dexterity and two cognitive minds. We have the power to choose, moment to moment, who and how we want to be in the world.”
Devaki Lindsey Berkson, author of Sexy Brain, a hormone formulator and former researcher at Tulane University’s estrogen think tank, advises, “Most people think hormones are sexy, reproductive things and when they get older, they’re relieved that they don’t have to think about them. Not true. The body has a virtual physiological internet system. Hormones are the email signals to most cells. While the robustness of hormones and their signals affects lungs, gut, kidney and vocal cord health, it especially affects the brain. Balancing hormones with bioidentical hormones is one solution.”
David Perlmutter, neurologist and co-author of Brain Wash, cites food as the biggest player in both brain and overall health in his books and PBS workshops. “Eating inappropriately causes intestinal permeability, resulting in inflammation, which in the brain, threatens good decision making—from deciding on the foods we eat to turning off our televisions at night, getting a good night’s rest, making sure that we exercise regularly and connecting with other people. Not good for the gut are dairy products, alcohol, highly processed foods that are low in fiber, high in sugar and refined carbohydrates, as well as antibiotics,” he says, adding that meditation and exposure to nature are powerful ways of reducing inflammation in the body and brain.
As explained by neurologist Dale E. Bredesen, author of The End of Alzheimer’s, stress leads to an increase in cortisol levels that can be toxic to our brains—in particular the memory—consolidating the hippocampus, one of the first structures affected by Alzheimer’s. Studies show that high stress levels can also contribute to brain fog, involving difficulty concentrating, forgetfulness and mental fatigue. The Bredesen Protocol, available from health practitioners and online, includes exercising, eating a plant-based diet, supplementing to reduce insulin sensitivity and optimize cognitive function, reducing both gut inflammation and exposure to toxins, treating pathogens and optimizing sleep.
HealthyBrains.org, Cleveland Clinic’s Healthy Brains Initiative, is an online resource center with information on how to manage brain health and create a brain span that matches a life span. It offers six pillars of brain health as explained by brain health experts, including exercise, sleep, relaxation, mental fitness and social interaction.
Supplementing for brain health should be done wisely, says Mark Hyman, author of Food: What the Heck Should I Eat? and director of functional medicine at Cleveland Clinic. He recommends at the very least taking a multivitamin and mineral supplement, omega-3, extra vitamins B3, B6 and B12, folate and a good probiotic that enhances the brain-gut relationship.
Mastery of the ABC’s in kindergarten is required as the foundation of language and a lifetime of learning. Living the fundamentals for a healthy brain can result in a brain span that equals our life span.
Linda Sechrist is a Natural Awakenings senior staff writer. Connect at Linda Sechrist.com.