By Dr. Mercola
An estimated 5.2 million Americans have Alzheimer's disease, which is the most common form of dementia. Currently, someone in the US develops Alzheimer's every 67 seconds, but this is expected to increase to every 33 seconds by mid-century.1
By 2050, it's estimated that the number of people with Alzheimer's may nearly triple, reaching 13.8 million. There is no cure for Alzheimer's disease, but there are plenty of strategies for prevention.
And as for treatment, Alzheimer's drugs are often of little to no benefit at all, which underscores the importance of prevention throughout your lifetime.
That being said, researchers from Lille University in France recently uncovered a simple tool that may significantly help to improve memory in people struggling with the disease: music.
Music May Help Alzheimer's Patients Recall and Share Memories
When Alzheimer's patients sat in rooms filled with music and were asked to tell a story about their life, their stories contained more meaningful words, were more grammatically complex, and conveyed more information (per number of words) than stories told in a silent room.2, 3
The findings suggest that exposure to music may help people with Alzheimer's disease to overcome neurolinguistic limitations. This makes sense, as the study's co-author noted, because "music and language processing share a common neural basis."4
It's long been theorized that listening to music may boost your brainpower; you've probably heard of this with the "Mozart Effect," which suggests listening to classical music can help make you smarter.
Indeed, research has shown that listening to music while exercising boosted cognitive levels and verbal fluency skills in people diagnosed with coronary artery disease (coronary artery disease has been linked to a decline in cognitive abilities). In this study, signs of improvement in the verbal fluency areas more than doubled after listening to music compared to that of the non-music session.5
It's clear that when you listen to music, much more is happening in your body than simple auditory processing. Music triggers activity in the nucleus accumbens, a part of your brain that releases one of the primary feel-good neurochemicals dopamine and which is involved in forming expectations.
At the same time, the amygdala, which is involved in processing emotion, and the prefrontal cortex, which makes possible abstract decision-making, are also activated, according to research published in the journal Science.6 If you have a loved one with Alzheimer's, playing music that they enjoy is a simple way to potentially boost their quality of life and possibly their memory as well.
Mental Stimulation Throughout Life Protects Against Dementia
One of the best ways to protect your brain as you get older is to engage in mentally stimulating activities you enjoy. Recent research published in JAMA Neurology found that intellectual enrichment was protective against cognitive impairment, and doing cognitive activities at least three times a week was described as "highly protective."7
The best effects came to those who had received mental stimulation throughout life. Those in the 75th percentile of "lifetime intellectual enrichment" delayed onset of cognitive impairment by more than eight years compared to those in the 25 percentile.8 According to researchers:
"Lifetime intellectual enrichment might delay the onset of cognitive impairment and be used as a successful preventive intervention to reduce the impending dementia epidemic."
Even if you weren't intellectually active as a young adult, don't despair. Even mid- and late-life mental activity was linked with a lower risk of cognitive impairment, especially among those with lower education levels. Overall, those with higher education levels also had a lower risk of dementia.
Challenge Your Mind in a Way That Matters to You
The JAMA Neurology study involved cognitive activities like crafts, reading, socializing, working on computers, and playing music. There is no one activity that fits all, and what mental activities are best for you is something only you can answer.
Engaging in "purposeful and meaningful activities" stimulates your neurological system, counters the effects of stress-related diseases, reduces the risk of dementia, and enhances health and well-being.9
However, a key factor necessary for improving your brain function or reversing functional decline is the seriousness of purpose with which you engage in a task. In other words, the task must not be performed mindlessly but should be meaningful or interesting to you — it must hold your attention.
For instance, one study revealed that craft activities such as quilting and knitting were associated with decreased odds of having mild cognitive impairment.10 Another study, published earlier this year, found that taking part in "cognitively demanding" activities like learning to quilt or take digital photography enhanced memory function in older adults.11
The key is to find an activity that is mentally stimulating for you. Ideally, this should be something that requires your undivided attention and gives you great satisfaction… it should be an activity that you look forward to doing, such as playing a musical instrument, gardening, building model ships, crafting, or many others.
You Can Try Brain Games, Too
There are an endless number of ways to stay mentally active throughout your life – classes, volunteering, hobbies, traveling, and even surfing the Web,12 just to name several. Another way to challenge your brain is via "brain games," which you can play online via Web sites like Lumosity.com.
Dr. Michael Merzenich, professor emeritus at the University of California, who I interviewed two years ago, has pioneered research in brain plasticity (also called neuroplasticity) for more than 30 years, has also developed a computer-based brain-training program that can help you sharpen a range of skills, from reading and comprehension to improved memorization and more.
The program is called Brain HQ, and the website has many different exercises designed to improve brain function and it also allows you to track and monitor your progress over time. While there are many similar sites on the Web, Brain HQ is one of the oldest and most widely used.
If you decide to try brain games, ideally, it would be wise to invest at least 20 minutes a day, but no more than five to seven minutes is to be spent on a specific task. When you spend longer amounts of time on a task, the benefits weaken.
According to Dr. Merzenich, the primary benefits occur in the first five or six minutes of the task. The only downside to brain games is that it may become just another "task" you need to fit into an already busy day, so you may prefer engaging in hobbies instead.
Cynical Distrust Also Increases Your Dementia Risk
Your cognitive abilities are also significantly impacted by your emotional health. Negative emotions are particularly damaging, of course, and these run the gamut from depression and anxiety to pessimism and, according to the latest research, cynicism.
If you have a deep mistrust of others, such that you often suspect others of cheating, taking unfair advantages, lying, or simply being untrustworthy, you might be at an increased risk of dementia. Older people with high levels of cynical distrust had a more than 2.5 times greater risk of developing dementia than those with low levels.13
Cynical distrust is described as believing that most people are self-interested and out for themselves as opposed to looking out for the community and others. Your emotions can actually trigger your genes to either express health or disease… and if you're chronically cynical, angry, or prone to uncontrolled outbursts you could be inadvertently sabotaging your health. This is why I highly recommend you work on overcoming your emotional barriers using energy psychology techniques such as the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) to help clear negative emotions.
B Vitamins Show Promise for Alzheimer's Prevention
It's now widely known that our modern lifestyle plays a significant role in contributing to cognitive decline, which is why exposure to toxins, chemicals, poor diet, lack of sleep, stress, and much more can actually hinder the functioning of your brain. The flipside is also true in that a healthy lifestyle can support your brain health, and one important aspect is your diet, including the intake of B vitamins. Vitamins B6, B12, and folic acid (please note that I recommend the natural form known as folate, which is found abundantly in green plant foods, i.e. "foliage") may help slow the progression of Alzheimer's disease. In one study, 156 study participants, all of whom were over the age of 70, were diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, a known risk factor for Alzheimer's.
One group of participants received a placebo while the other received high-dose B-vitamin treatment consisting of 0.8 mg folic acid, 20 mg vitamin B6, and 0.5 mg vitamin B12. The treatment effectively slowed shrinkage of the whole brain volume over the course of two years. It also reduced, by as much as seven-fold, the cerebral atrophy in certain brain regions that are particularly vulnerable to damage associated with Alzheimer's disease.14 This is a telling example of how important a healthy diet filled with abundant nutrients is in protecting your brain health.
A Comprehensive Plan to Protect Your Brain Health Naturally
Dementia, including Alzheimer's, is a preventable disease, predicated on your lifestyle choices. This is good news, as it puts the power into your hands. Diet is paramount, and the beauty of following my optimized nutrition plan is that it helps prevent and treat virtually all chronic degenerative diseases, including Alzheimer's disease. People who experience very little decline in their cognitive function up until their deaths have been found (post-mortem) to be free of brain lesions, showing that it's entirely possible to prevent the damage from occurring in the first place… and one of the best ways to do this is by leading a healthy lifestyle. The following guidelines will help you protect your brain health well into old age:
- Avoid sugar and refined fructose. Ideally, you'll want to keep your sugar levels to a minimum and your total fructose below 25 grams per day, or as low as 15 grams per day if you have insulin resistance or any related disorders like obesity, high blood pressure, or diabetes. The brain's metabolic needs are optimized with a higher fat diet, especially saturated fats containing medium chain triglycerides (i.e. coconut oil) whose metabolites include ketone bodies, which provides the brain an alternative fuel source to sugar.
- Avoid gluten (primarily wheat). Research shows that your blood-brain barrier, the barrier that keeps toxins and chemical toxicants out of your brain where they don't belong, is negatively affected by gluten and the lectin found in what's known as wheat germ agglutinin (WGA). Gluten also makes your gut more permeable, which allows proteins and gut contents (such as inflammatory bacteria components) to get into your bloodstream, where they don't belong. This inflammatory cascade can damage and confuse the immune system promoting autoimmunity, which can play a role in the development of Alzheimer's.
- Optimize your gut flora by regularly eating fermented foods or taking a high-potency and high-quality probiotic supplement.
- Increase consumption of healthy fats, including animal-based omega-3. Beneficial health-promoting fats that your brain needs for optimal function include organic grass-fed raw butter, olives, organic virgin olive oil and coconut oil, nuts like pecans and macadamia, free-range eggs, wild Alaskan salmon, and avocado. Contrary to popular belief, the ideal fuel for your brain is not glucose but ketones. Ketones are what your body produces when it converts fat (as opposed to glucose) into energy. The medium-chain triglycerides (MCT) found in coconut oil are a great source of ketone bodies, because coconut oil is about 66 percent MCTs.
In fact, ketones appear to be the preferred source of brain food in patients affected by diabetes or Alzheimer's. Also make sure you're getting enough animal-based omega-3 fats, such as krill oil. (I recommend avoiding most fish because, although fish is naturally high in omega-3, most fish are now severely contaminated with mercury.) High intake of the omega-3 fats EPA and DHA help by preventing cell damage caused by Alzheimer's disease, thereby slowing down its progression, and lowering your risk of developing the disorder.
- Reduce your overall calorie consumption, and/or intermittently fast. As mentioned above, ketones are mobilized when you replace carbs with coconut oil and other sources of healthy fats. A one-day fast can help your body to "reset" itself, and start to burn fat instead of sugar. As part of a healthy lifestyle, I prefer an intermittent fasting schedule that simply calls for limiting your eating to a narrower window of time each day. By restricting your eating to a 6-8 hour window, you effectively fast 16-18 hours each day. If you don't have insulin resistance, this is not that crucial but about 90% of people have it.
- Improve your magnesium levels. There is some exciting preliminary research strongly suggesting a decrease in Alzheimer symptoms with increased levels of magnesium in the brain. Unfortunately, most magnesium supplements do not pass the blood-brain barrier, but a new one, magnesium threonate, appears to and holds some promise for the future for treating this condition and may be superior to other forms.
- Optimize your vitamin D levels with safe sun exposure. Strong links between low levels of vitamin D in Alzheimer's patients and poor outcomes on cognitive tests have been revealed. Researchers believe that optimal vitamin D levels may enhance the amount of important chemicals in your brain and protect brain cells by increasing the effectiveness of the glial cells in nursing damaged neurons back to health.
Vitamin D may also exert some of its beneficial effects on Alzheimer's through its anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting properties. Sufficient vitamin D is imperative for proper functioning of your immune system to combat inflammation that is also associated with Alzheimer's.
- Keep your fasting insulin levels below 3. This is indirectly related to fructose, as it will clearly lead to insulin resistance. However, other sugars (sucrose is 50 percent fructose by weight), grains, and lack of exercise are also important factors. Lowering insulin will also help lower leptin levels, which is another key factor for Alzheimer's.
- Eat a nutritious diet rich in folate, such as the one described in my nutrition plan. Vegetables, without question, are your best form of folate, and we should all eat plenty of fresh raw veggies every day.
- Avoid and eliminate mercury from your body. Dental amalgam fillings, which are 50 percent mercury by weight, are one of the major sources of heavy metal toxicity. However, you should be healthy prior to having them removed. Once you have adjusted to following the diet described in my nutrition plan, you can follow the mercury detox protocol and then find a qualified biological dentist to have your amalgams removed.
- Avoid aluminum, such as antiperspirants, non-stick cookware, vaccine adjuvants, etc.
- Exercise regularly. It's been suggested that exercise can trigger a change in the way the amyloid precursor protein is metabolized,15 thus, slowing down the onset and progression of Alzheimer's. Exercise also increases levels of the protein PGC-1alpha. Research has also shown that people with Alzheimer's have less PGC-1alpha in their brains16 and cells that contain more of the protein produce less of the toxic amyloid protein associated with Alzheimer's. I would strongly recommend reviewing the Peak Fitness High-Intensity Interval Training Technique for my specific recommendations.
- Avoid flu vaccinations as most contain mercury, a well-known neurotoxic and immunotoxic agent.
- Eat blueberries. Wild blueberries, which have high anthocyanin and antioxidant content, are known to guard against Alzheimer's and other neurological diseases. Like any fruit, though, avoid excesses here.
- Challenge your mind daily. As mentioned, mental stimulation, especially learning something new, such as learning to play an instrument or a new language, is associated with a decreased risk of Alzheimer's. Researchers suspect that mental challenge helps to build up your brain, making it less susceptible to the lesions associated with Alzheimer's disease.
- Avoid anticholinergics and statin drugs. Drugs that block acetylcholine, a nervous system neurotransmitter, have been shown to increase your risk of dementia. These drugs include certain nighttime pain relievers, antihistamines, sleep aids, certain antidepressants, medications to control incontinence, and certain narcotic pain relievers. Statin drugs are particularly problematic because they suppress the synthesis of cholesterol (a primary building block of brain tissue), deplete your brain of coenzyme Q10 and neurotransmitter precursors, and prevent adequate delivery of essential fatty acids and fat-soluble antioxidants to your brain by inhibiting the production of the indispensable carrier biomolecule known as low-density lipoprotein.
4 Additional Natural Treatments to Ward Off Dementia
Finally, there are a few other nutritional recommendations worth noting for their specific benefits in preventing and treating dementia. So, although your fundamental strategy for preventing dementia should involve a comprehensive lifestyle approach, you may want to consider adding a few of these natural dietary agents to your anti-Alzheimer's arsenal. These four natural foods/supplements have good science behind them, in terms of preventing age-related cognitive changes.
- Astaxanthin is a natural pigment with unique properties and many clinical benefits, including some of the most potent antioxidant activity currently known. As a fat-soluble nutrient, astaxanthin readily crosses your blood-brain barrier. One study found it may help prevent neurodegeneration associated with oxidative stress, as well as make a potent natural "brain food."17
- Ginkgo biloba: Many scientific studies have found that Ginkgo biloba has positive effects for dementia. Ginkgo, which is derived from a tree native to Asia, has long been used medicinally in China and other countries. A 1997 study from JAMA showed clear evidence that Ginkgo improves cognitive performance and social functioning for those suffering from dementia. Research since then has been equally promising. One study in 2006 found Ginkgo as effective as the dementia drug Aricept (donepezil) for treating mild to moderate Alzheimer's type dementia. A 2010 meta-analysis found Ginkgo biloba to be effective for a variety of types of dementia.
- Alpha lipoic acid (ALA): ALA can stabilize cognitive functions among Alzheimer's patients and may slow the progression of the disease.
- Vitamin B12: A small Finnish study published in the journal Neurology found that people who consume foods rich in B12 may reduce their risk of Alzheimer's in their later years.18 For each unit increase in the marker of vitamin B12, the risk of developing Alzheimer's was reduced by 2 percent. It is important to note that vitamin B12 comes in many forms and it is typically injected because it is not absorbed well by most people, especially in the elderly who need it most. This is due to it being one of the largest vitamins known. The most common form is cyanocobalamin, which contains cyanide, so I recommend the cyanide-free form known as methylcobalamin and which has the additional benefit of having a methyl group, essential for reducing brain and artery damaging homocysteine levels and for optimizing the epigenetic expression of your genes. A better alternative to B12 injections would also be sublingual sprays, which are absorbed very similarly to the injections.