Memory loss and cognitive decline is a battle most people will face as they age. But it is this really part of the “normal” aging process? Not necessarily. Current research is revealing that what we believed to be degenerative changes in the brain associated with the normal aging process could actually be the result of years of unresolved chronic inflammation in the brain.
This means that, at any age, when routine tasks seem more difficult, and moments of confusion occur more often, symptoms of neurodegeneration of the brain due to inflammation need to be considered.
The inflammatory process
The responsibility of collecting and removing pathogens and debris from our brain falls to the microglia, the innate immune cells in our brains. They do this by initiating a temporary inflammatory response to attack “invaders,” consuming the foreign substance, and then returning to their normal resting state when the danger has been removed.
However, when the body has suffered too many assaults (for example, through infection, physical or mental trauma, chronic stress, poor dietary habits, exposure to toxins), the microglia are unable to down-regulate and they remain in attack mode. The result of this is a chronic, wildfire-like inflammation in the brain. Furthermore, as we get older, and the microglia have a longer history of activation, they move into a more inflammatory state as their resting state. This heightened inflammatory state, over time, eventually damages neurons and affects cognitive functioning and memory.
But there is good news! Our brains are resilient, and when given the opportunity, the degenerative effects of chronic inflammation can be reduced – or even reversed – with certain lifestyle changes.
So, what can you do to reduce inflammation and improve memory and cognitive performance? Here are 3 steps to maintain a better brain:
1) Get regular aerobic exercise: Simply put, aerobic exercise increases blood flow to the brain, which helps your brain create new neurons and improve neural connections. A study by the University of Maryland School of Public Health, published in July 2013, showed that people who increased their heart rate with daily moderate exercise “improved their memory performance and showed enhanced neural efficiency while engaged in memory retrieval tasks.”
Regular exercise also down-regulates microglia in the brain. Try to incorporate just 30 minutes a day of moderate physical exercise – such as walking – for a significant impact on your brain health.
2) Eat smarter: Not surprisingly, diet also plays an important role in brain health and there is an impressive amount of research confirming that essential fatty acids, like Omega-3’s, are very beneficial. If DHA levels are low (DHA is a form of Omega-3) the brain is more susceptible to degeneration. Omega-3 fatty acids also help scavenge free radicals (atoms, molecules, or ions with unpaired electrons) that attach inappropriately to tissue and damage it.
Since our bodies are unable to produce these fatty acids on their own, foods rich in Omega-3’s like salmon, shrimp, sardines, eggs, walnuts, and almonds, should make a regular appearance on our plates.
Fruits and vegetables, high in a type of anti-oxidant called flavonoid, also play a major role in brain health. Foods rich in flavonoids offer a number of neuroprotective properties, and can decrease rates of cognitive decline and potentially slow the progression of many neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s Disease. Foods rich in flavonoids include tea (black, green, oolong), bananas, blueberries and other colorful berries, onions, apples, citrus, Ginkgo biloba, parsley, red wine, and chocolate!
3) Meditate: Meditation is neuro-regenerative. A study conducted by Massachusetts General Hospital found that mindfulness meditation, over the short period of only 8 weeks, increased the amount of gray matter in regions of the brain involved in learning and memory, regulation of one’s emotions, and self-awareness.
Bottom Line: You don’t need to be a bystander in the battle against cognitive decline. By following these 3 simple tips, you’ll be taking important steps toward optimizing your brain health, at any age!
SUPPLEMENTS FOR BRAIN HEALTH
Research has shown that certain nutritional supplements may help limit and possibly even reverse the damage of inflammation in the brain, by calming the neuro-inflammatory process that can damage neural tissue, cause or exacerbate physical pain and emotional suffering, and erode mental clarity.
View Dr. Kaplan’s guide to 10 Brain-Boosting Nutritional Supplements to nurture and even heal the brain for improved memory, mood, and overall cognitive health!