Maintain Optimal Brain Function Throughout Life
Julian Whitaker, MD
The British Medical Journal recently published the results of a large clinical trial that came to the rather disturbing conclusion that memory loss begins as early as age 45. Except for vocabulary, which slightly improved up to age 60, mental decline was clearly evident, even in people who were 45–49 years old at the study’s onset.
On the bright side, a third of all the study subjects, who ranged in age from 45 to 70, had no signs of mental deterioration at all. What do these folks have going for them that others don’t?
It’s partly the luck of the genetic draw. Certain variations, for example, in a gene called apolipoprotein E, which is associated with inflammation and cholesterol metabolism, dramatically increase risk of Alzheimer’s disease. However, the most significant risk factors are firmly within your control.
Good for Heart and Head
As the authors of this study pointed out, “There is emerging consensus that ‘what is good for our hearts is also good for our heads’….” Thousands of scientific papers have demonstrated associations between cognitive problems and cardiovascular risk factors such as obesity, hypertension, and elevated lipids. There is also solid evidence linking insulin resistance, the underlying condition in type 2 diabetes, with Alzheimer’s disease. Therefore, your best bet for staving off memory loss is a healthy lifestyle—and the sooner you start the better.
Emphasis may be placed on intellectual stimulation, but physical exercise is every bit as important as mental exercise for maintaining cognitive function. Regular activity improves blood flow to the brain, plus it boosts the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which promotes the growth of new neurons and plays a key role in neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to fend off and recover from damage and degeneration.
A healthy, Mediterranean-type diet, particularly in midlife, also helps keep you sharp in your later years. Specific foods that protect against memory loss include fish, mono- and polyunsaturated fats, low-fat dairy products, blueberries, cocoa, green tea, coffee, and alcohol (light-to-moderate—heavy drinking fries your brain).
Drugs Won’t Save You
I hope you’ll take this advice seriously, because you can’t count on conventional medicine’s help. Although the race is on to develop drugs to prevent and improve memory loss—experts predict that an effective treatment could reap $25 billion per year—the current crop of medications is a sorry lot, and expectations for a pharmaceutical solution in the near term are low. In fact, earlier this year, Pfizer threw in the towel on its latest Alzheimer’s drug after it failed to produce desired results.
What gets lost in this frantic search for a blockbuster drug are the safe, natural therapies that have been available for years. I’m not saying there’s a nutritional supplement that will reverse Alzheimer’s disease, but a number of neuroprotective vitamins, minerals, and other supplements can certainly increase the odds of keeping your memory intact as you get older.
Stay Sharp With Supplements
Two of the basic pathological processes underlying neuro-degeneration are oxidative stress and inflammation, which is yet another reason why everyone should be taking an antioxidant-rich daily multivitamin and inflammation-quelling fish oil.
B-complex vitamins are also crucial for optimal neurological function. In a 2012 study, Finnish researchers found correlations between higher blood levels of vitamin B12/folate and better test scores. A low blood level of vitamin D is another risk factor, and a large Italian study concluded that deficiencies conferred a 60 percent higher risk of cognitive decline in elderly people.
Extras for Elders
Robust cardiovascular health, normal weight and blood sugar, regular exercise, and a good diet and supplement program in your 30s, 40s, and 50s will give you an excellent chance of staying physically strong, mentally sharp, and independent throughout your life. But what if you’re “over the hill” or have already noticed signs of memory loss? Then by all means step up your program.
Patients often ask about some of the heavily advertised supplements that claim to halt memory loss. I don’t have the space to comment on specific products, but I can tell you what nutrients, in addition to those discussed above, have good supporting research.
Phosphatidylserine and phosphatidylcholine boost levels of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter required for memory and learning that is depleted in struggling brains. Acetyl-L-carnitine also promotes acetylcholine synthesis, plus it provides potent antioxidant protection—as do coenzyme Q10, alpha lipoic acid, and melatonin. Curcumin, Ginkgo biloba, and resveratrol curb inflammation and oxidative stress and have broad neuroprotective effects. Piracetam enhances neuronal function, vinpocetine improves blood flow to the brain, and niacinamide and very low-dose lithium orotate protect against the degenerative changes characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease.
You are unlikely to find a single product that contains all of these ingredients, but look for a handful of them—and make sure they’re in therapeutic dosages. Inferior products often cut corners by adding small, ineffective amounts of pricy ingredients, while claiming the full benefits. Finally, be suspicious of anything that claims to cure Alzheimer’s. Any company that makes outrageous claims is not to be trusted.
- Optimal daily dosages of brain-nurturing nutrients, taken in divided doses, are: fish oil 2–4 g, B6 75–125 mg, B12 1,000–2,000 mcg, folic acid 800–1,000 mcg, vitamin D 5,000 IU (or to optimal blood level), phosphatidylserine 100–200 mg, phosphatidylcholine depends on form (for very well-absorbed alpha-GPC 250 mg), coenzyme Q10 100–200 mg, alpha lipoic acid 600–1,200 mg, melatonin 3 mg at bedtime, curcumin 1,000–2,000 mg (or 500–1,000 mg for curcumin phytosome), Ginkgo biloba 120 mg, resveratrol 100–200 mg, vinpocetine 10 mg, niacinamide 3,000 mg, lithium orotate 200–400 mcg, and piracetam 800 mg, two or three times a day.
- Look for these supplements, in single or combo products aimed at brain support, in your health food store. Piracetam and low-dose lithium are available from the Whitaker Wellness Institute at (800) 810-6655.
- Annweiler C, et al. Serum vitamin D deficiency as a predictor of incident non-Alzheimer dementias: a 7-year longitudinal study. Dement Geriatr Cogn Disord. 2012 Jan;32(4):273–278.
- Hooshmand B, et al. Associations between serum homocysteine, holotranscobalamin, folate and cognition in the elderly: a longitudinal study. J Intern Med. 2012 Feb;271(2):204–212.
- Singh-Manou A, et al. Timing of onset of cognitive decline: results from Whitehall II prospective cohort study. BMJ. 2012 Jan 5;344:d7622.
- Tsolaki M, et al. Efficacy of acetylcholinesterase inhibitors versus nootropics in Alzheimer’s disease: a retrospective, longitudinal study. J Int Med Res. 2001 Jan-Feb;29(1):28–36.
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