The 5 Keys to Cognitive Health: How to Keep Your Brain Thriving at Any Age
BY DR. MIKE DOW
research has shown that there are special daily habits, practices and foods that can boost cognitive health and keep your brain functioning perfectly into old age and beyond.
Avoiding Senior Moments
Ward was a broad-shouldered, boisterous man in his early 70s who was visibly upset when he came into my office. A retired military man, Ward had a loud voice and a precise way of speaking. He was clearly anxious as he described several incidents in which his cognitive health had been “not up to par,” as he put it: the other day when he couldn’t remember the name of an old colleague; the evening when he forgot where he parked his car. And more and more often, he couldn’t retrieve the right word on demand.
Even into his 60s, Ward had always felt as mentally sharp as the 30-somethings who worked with him. That began to change soon after he retired. He had been trying to do more crossword puzzles to maintain good cognitive health, but they didn’t seem to help. A neurologist ran some tests and assured Ward that what he was experiencing was just normal, age-related cognitive decline and said there wasn’t much he could do about it. What most worried Ward were the Alzheimer’s disease stats the neurologist shared with him: one in eight for people 65 or older and over half of those over 85.
You see, Ward had lived his life as a “beat the odds” kind of guy. He was born in a trailer and had worked two different jobs in high school to help his family and to save for college—the first of his family ever to attend. He was not a guy who was going to take old age lying down.
“All four of my grandparents lived into their nineties, and all four of ’em were sharp as a tack! And here I am, seventy-two years old with failing cognitive health,” Ward said. “Help me out here, Doc.”
I quickly assured Ward that, although he was getting older, he didn’t have to lose his edge and surrender to “senior moments.” In fact, brand-new research suggests memory loss may be reversible and good brain health can be restored.
The right diet and exercise could make a world of difference in clearing away his brain fog and promoting neurogenesis, the brain’s function and ability to grow and change when presented with new challenges.
A simple memory game called the n-back, the addition of an inexpensive spice into his daily diet, and some new skills might provide Ward with the chance for his brain and cognitive health to stretch, grow, and sharpen.
What Mild Cognitive Impairment Means—And What You Can Do About It
Beginning in the late 1990s, the term mild cognitive impairment kept popping up in medical journals and magazine articles. And in 2013, DSM-5, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders from the American Psychiatric Association, added mild neurocognitive disorder to its list of official diagnoses.All sorts of related terms—age-associated memory impairment, subjective cognitive impairment, or, my personal favorite, “senior moments”—refer to that gray area between normal brain functioning and dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. These recommendations don’t just apply to the 65-and-over set, however. The time to take care of your brain function starts much earlier. Research shows your brain and cognitive health start to noticeably slow down by your 40s, particularly if you do nothing to combat it. One study that tested over 7,000 people over the course of a decade found that all cognitive skills tested except vocabulary declined. If you work on sharpening your cognitive function and skills earlier in life, you will reap the benefits decades later. As baby boomers get older and our life spans lengthen (and as we eat more processed carbs, move less, and gain weight), mild cognitive impairment has seemed to take on epidemic proportions.
Up to 17 percent of people over 65 may have some form of mild cognitive impairment, but what exactly is it? Signs of mild cognitive impairment include difficulty in these areas:
+ Remembering names
+ Finding the correct word
+ Remembering where objects are located
Many of these symptoms might not seem all that serious at first glance, so if you’re of a certain age and have had any of these cognitive health problems, you might be thinking, Well, that doesn’t sound so bad. And even if it is bad, it’s not as if I can do anything about it.
Wrong on both counts. Between 6 to 15 percent of patients who meet criteria for mild cognitive impairment will receive a diagnosis of dementia every year. After ten years, up to 80 percent of them will have or—if they’ve passed away—have had Alzheimer’s.
And, as we know, Alzheimer’s disease is a cognitive health disorder that is challenging to treat, financially disastrous, and, of course, emotionally devastating. It’s already the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. and in 2013, a new report from the journal Neurology warned that by 2050, the number of Americans with Alzheimer’s disease will triple from the 5 million currently to almost 14 million.
That said, if you’re diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, you are by no means doomed to an eventual Alzheimer’s diagnosis. On the contrary, take it as all the more reason to go on the offensive to restore healthy brain function and overall cognition. There are so many things you can do to prevent and even reverse age-related types of cognitive decline. If your memory is going, you can fight to get it back, using various techniques as well as natural cognitive enhancers and cognitive health supplements.One part of the brain involved in learning and memory, the hippocampus, is especially vulnerable to aging, and it produces less and less of the key protein RbAp48. In one study, inhibiting this protein in young mice’s brains made them forgetful in mazes. But when scientists increased this protein in old mice, their memories and cognitive performance were similar to those of young mice. Now that’s encouraging!
While injecting this protein directly into our brains isn’t an option to improve cognitive health for now, we certainly can employ neurogenesis-boosting strategies and cognitive enhancers that keep the hippocampus fit, and potentially even reverse decline that’s already occurring.
The young-and-old-mice study also provided evidence that age-related memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease are two distinct conditions. Normal age-related decline that impacts cognitive function targets the hippocampus, whereas Alzheimer’s disease takes a different route, initially targeting a region of the brain called the entorhinal cortex.
And though “senior moments” and Alzheimer’s are distinct conditions, you can slow down or even prevent both. Very few cases of Alzheimer’s—only about 10 percent—are inherited.
Taking Charge Of Your Aging Brain: The 5 Keys to Cognitive Health and Enhancing Brain Function
We will be targeting two primary brain structures in this program to maximize cognitive health, both of which are involved in learning as well as short- and long-term memory: the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex. When we strengthen these two areas, we can go a long way toward improving brain health and fighting senior moments.
The hippocampus is the principal site of neurogenesis in the brain, which means we can actually grow new brain cells with cognitive function strategies. We can also physically increase the thickness of the prefrontal cortex through meditation, part of the 7-Day Spirit Revolution, which I teach in my book The Brain Fog Fix. (This is especially important for cognitive function as the prefrontal cortex begins to shrink in middle adulthood while simultaneously losing dopamine.)
The Action Plan
1. Never Stop Learning
The most reliable way to keep your cognitive health sharp is to make learning a lifelong pursuit. Learn when you’re young, and once you’re done with school and in your chosen career, keep on learning. Learning is especially important as you get older, especially after retirement.
Learning is one of the best tools to protect brain health from cognitive decline and senior moments. It’s why people with higher levels of education have fewer senior moments, and why people who speak only one language show symptoms of dementia four years before bilinguals.Learning also increases your cognitive health reserve—it builds neurons and connections in your brain. The more of these you have, the more you can spare. It’s not just about preventing Alzheimer’s-causing plaques from building up by using strategies like sleeping eight hours a night. People who have built their cognitive function through learning can continue to function well even after the plaques have started to develop. And whatever our level of education or genetics, we all have the capability to grow more neurons and connections.
So as soon as you put down this article, head over to the Learning Annex, or your local library. Download a lecture online. Take up astronomy, or gardening, or any other subject that strikes your fancy.
2. Have Fun
In addition to learning, staying engaged in leisure activities helps you stimulate your brain’s cognitive health. One famous study looked at almost 500 elderly people to examine the relationship between leisure activities and cognitive decline. Reading, playing board games and musical instruments, and dancing all reduced subjects’ risk of cognitive decline. Another study found traveling, gardening, and knitting also have protective effects for cognitive function. Yet another identified activities like reading and playing board games as protective against senior moments. But notably, there was one activity that significantly increased the risk of cognitive decline: watching TV. While reading reduced the risk of cognitive impairment by about 5 percent, watching TV increased the risk by 20 percent! So if you want to curtail senior moments and strengthen your cognitive function, start by watching less TV and doing more gardening, card playing, or traveling.
3. Get Moving
Exercise is another fun activity that can protect your brain function against cognitive decline. Aerobic activity has been shown to promote neurogenesis in the hippocampus. Just the simple act of walking every day might cut the risk of dementia in elderly people in half.
Another study found aerobic exercise in older adults led to increases in brain volume in areas associated with cognition. And still another study found that the more people walked, the larger their brain volume (which was associated with a lower risk of mild cognitive impairment and better cognitive health).
Exercise is also important for cognitive function because it helps reduce belly fat, and carrying excess belly weight can spell bad news for brain health. In one study, people with the most belly fat were three times more likely to develop dementia than those with the least. Even those subjects who did not have excess belly fat but were overweight had an 80 percent increased risk of developing dementia.
Exercise is also an extremely effective cognitive enhancer and natural antidepressant, which becomes doubly important as people get older, since prescription antidepressants can impair cognitive health. And since older people are more likely to be on other medications—many of which are vital to their health—they should be all the more proactive about employing natural strategies to decrease the total number of pills they take for all conditions.
4. Do the N-Back Task
The other miracle memory treatment to improve cognitive health is the n-back task (which I describe in my book The Brain Fog Fix). If you’ve ever played the childhood game Concentration, you’ve used a version of this. And most brain training systems and apps like Lumosity and BrainHQ use a version of this as well.
Unlike strategies that target crystallized intelligence, the knowledge and skills you acquire through life experience (such as expanding your vocabulary through crossword puzzles), the n-back targets your working memory, a part of your cognitive health which tends to decline as you get older.
Crystallized intelligence, on the other hand, increases throughout most of the life span. You learn more facts, and you become better at Trivial Pursuit. But working memory is important to cognitive health because it allows you to hold information for a short amount of time while also being able to manipulate that information if necessary. Many of life’s more complex tasks require you to tap into this type of memory.
But what’s truly remarkable about the n-back task is that, for all its simplicity, it’s been shown to actually improve fluid intelligence, which is vital for learning and was once thought of as fairly unchangeable. Because fluid intelligence generally declines after young adulthood, it’s one of the most important kinds of intelligence to improve if you want to prevent senior moments and experience excellent brain health.
It doesn’t take a huge commitment to see the gains in cognitive function and health, either. You can improve your memory and cognitive enhancement by doing the n-back task for just 25 minutes a day or even less in just a week, with even more gains after a few weeks. The n-back task even helped 80-year-olds improve their memories .
5. Eat Smart: Super Foods For Brain Health and Cognitive Function
Incorporating cognitive health supplements and making dietary changes like decreasing blood-sugar spikes, shifting from omega-6 to omega-3 proteins and fats, moving from soybean to olive oil, and eating lots of vegetables and legumes high in B vitamins, including folate—will work wonders to prevent senior moments and other forms of cognitive decline.
The Brain Fog Fix Program is, generally speaking, an amped-up version of the Mediterranean diet, which has been associated with better cognitive health and a lower risk of mild cognitive impairment. For people who already have mild cognitive impairment, this diet will help prevent a transition from mild cognitive impairment to Alzheimer’s disease. We will be building our diets around Mediterranean basics like fish and olive oil as well as dramatically cutting back on processed carbs, choosing organic and pasture-raised meats and dairy, and eating a record-breaking seven servings of vegetables and fruits every day.
We will focus on a few specific foods that serve as cognitive enhancers and are particularly good for preventing senior moments, namely berries, turmeric, and fish.
Berries are truly a miracle food for your cognitive health—high in flavonoids as well as fiber, which manages blood sugar spikes—not to mention being delicious. Eating berries regularly has been shown to slow the progression of cognitive decline by up to 2.5 years, according to one study. Blueberries in particular might even help people overcome genetic predispositions for Alzheimer’s disease. Berries may have the power to reverse age-related decline according to one study.
So tomorrow at breakfast, ditch the orange juice and toast and reach for the slow-burning carbs in blueberries and raspberries to nurture your cognitive enhancement. Mix in them in protein shakes with organic milk or unsweetened almond milk, or eat them with stevia and plain Greek yogurt. Alternatively, you can add more berries to your diet by including concentrated berry extracts as part of a cognitive health supplements routine.
2. Fish Oil
The omega-3s in fish, DHA and EPA, can serve as cognitive enhancers, improving the functioning of our brain health, and this becomes particularly important as we age. One recent study with adults aged 50 to 75 found that verbal fluency, visual tasks, and reading ability all improved with a fish oil cognitive health supplement. The fish oil even helped improve the structure of the brain itself.
Another study showed that an omega-3 supplement could improve working memory. And fish isn’t just prevention but also treatment. In a study of subjects who were already experiencing senior moments, the ones taking a DHA supplement showed improved verbal fluency after six months. The omega-3 cognitive health supplements and superfoods you will be eating will help ensure that you’re getting enough EPA and DHA.
Where to Get it:
Polar Power Wild Cold-Pressed Alaskan Salmon Oil Capsules
Hands down the worlds freshest, purest, most potent, best-tasting fish oil and source of Omega 3 fatty acids. Cold-pressed from fresh, wild Alaskan Salmon and free of all heavy metals, preservatives and adulterants. Exceptionally rich in naturally occurring Vitamins A and D and Astaxanthin, this a powerful food for enhancing cognitive function and boosting overall health.
And then there’s one of the most miraculous brain-restoring ingredients and cognitive health supplements of all: turmeric. The effects of this miracle spice are quite evident in rural India, where fewer than 1 percent of seniors aged 65 and over have Alzheimer’s disease, compared to about 13 percent in the United States. The reason for this discrepancy is shockingly simple and incredibly inexpensive: it’s because Indians eat a lot of turmeric, a cognitive enhancement spice used in curry that contains curcumin, which has major anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
Turmeric can also increase brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which enhances neurogenesis in the brain while fighting Alzheimer’s disease–causing plaques. One study showed that turmeric works as a cognitive enhancer to help the body clear brain-fogging plaques from the brain. Another found evidence of neurogenesis and enhanced cognitive health in older rats in as little as 12 weeks. And in addition to making you think better, turmeric will make you feel better, too, possibly increasing serotonin in the brain.
Try to get a little of this magical cognitive enhancer regularly, not just once a month when you wind up at an Indian restaurant, for low doses of turmeric over a long period of time are more effective than very occasional high doses in fighting Alzheimer’s disease–causing plaques. And remember: try to eat it with black pepper as the Indians do in curry. That makes it even more powerful because this combo of cognitive health supplements makes the turmeric bioavailable.
Where to Get it:
Organic Curcumin with Piperine (Black Pepper) Extract
A highly absorbable Organic Tumeric (Curcumin) extract combined with black pepper for maximum bioavailability. Free from preservatives, artificial colorings, soy or stearates.
4. Other Great Spices
Saffron, another common ingredient in curry, can also inhibit Alzheimer’s disease–causing plaques. Try adding dashes of this cognitive health supplement to organic chicken. Rosemary is another herb that works wonders. The carnosic acid in rosemary may also reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s disease, while the scent alone can improve memory. Spanish sage has been shown to improve word recall, a common “senior moment” complaint. The moral of the story here: lots of herbs and spices are great cognitive function supplements. So put down the salt and flavor your food with any other herb or spice. Your brain and your taste buds will both thank you.
The article on cognitive health enhancement is excerpted from The Brain Fog Fix: Reclaim Your Focus, Memory, and Joy in Just 3 Weeks by Dr. Mike Dow.
About The Author
Dr. Mike Dow is an author, psychotherapist, and the host of shows on E!, TLC, VH1, Investigation Discovery, and Logo. He makes regular appearances on The Dr. Oz Show, Dr. Drew On Call, The Talk, The Wendy Williams Show, Rachael Ray, Nightline, Good Morning America, The Doctors, and the Today show. He resides in Los Angeles where he is in private practice. Visit his website: drmikedow.com