How We Live Today Matters A Whole Lot For Our Brain Health Tomorrow

Can you believe that I have been so bold as to claim that lifestyle factors, over which we have control, may play a role in determining whether or not we develop Alzheimer’s disease?

I've read criticism from the skeptics and have elected not to fan the flames by commenting on their blogs. Some people cling to the idea that what we eat, how much exercise we get, whether we sleep enough, and even how we manage stress doesn't matter in terms of our brain function.

This is flawed on two counts. First, it relinquishes your cognitive fate to a (so far) nonexistent drug. Second, it's not in line with our most current and well-respected scientific journals. Nonetheless, some people tend to be down on what they're not up on.

Let’s take a look at what our thought leaders are telling us.

Dr. Deborah Barnes is a neuroscientist in San Francisco whose work gets published in some of our most highly regarded journals. She recently published some great science in Lancet Neurology in which she concluded that factors like obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure dramatically increase a person’s risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Her work was written up by the University of California News, which stated that "over half of all Alzheimer’s disease cases could potentially be prevented through lifestyle changes and treatment or prevention of chronic medical conditions."

According to that same news report, Barnes found that in the United States, the biggest modifiable risk factors are:

  • Physical inactivity
  • Depression
  • Smoking
  • Mid-life hypertension
  • Mid-life obesity
  • Low education
  • Diabetes

That same reported stated that, these risk factors "are associated with up to 54% of Alzheimer’s cases in the United States (2.9 million cases)."

This is powerful information! Sadly, it suggests that 54% of Alzheimer’s patients in America didn’t have to get this devastating diagnosis—if they had only known. Yet, somehow we are supposed to buy into the notion that we can live our lives however we choose and that soon there will be a cure for whatever malady befalls us.

As of this writing, there is no meaningful treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. Several months ago, to great fanfare, federal monies (to the tune of $33 million), were allocated to help pharmaceutical companies develop a drug to prevent Alzheimer’s, a disease affecting more than five million Americans.

As I've said before on this site, while the idea of creating a drug to prevent Alzheimer’s seems honorable, keep in mind that the development of such a drug means big business. Some financial experts predict that developing an efficacious drug treatment for the disease could generate $20 billion in annual sales. But the value of a drug to take before there is any evidence of dementia—a far larger treatment group compared to those already afflicted—would be staggering.

New York Times writer Pam Belluck reported that the goal of this grant would be to develop a preventive treatment using a strategy similar to what we already do for heart disease.

Is this really what we should be doing?

We already know that modifiable lifestyle factors profoundly influence Alzheimer’s risk, but, unfortunately, the underlying practice of medicine in America today seems focused on treating our symptoms with highly profitable remedies while ignoring the root causes of disease.

Watching our elected leaders debate the merits of funding a health-care plan designed to treat illnesses presents a poignant irony, as it has little to do with health and everything to do with illness. But it has become clear that both sides enthusiastically agree that Americans need their pills, and lots of them.

Just the simple act of getting regular exercise can dramatically lower Alzheimer’s risk, and this isn’t new information. In fact, exercising regularly has been demonstrated to actually improve memory in adults with memory impairment. Where would such an iconoclastic report have been published? It was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association way back in 2008!

So it’s time we accept the idea, with gratitude, that how we live our lives matters a whole lot in determining how we will function in the future. Dietary choices determine blood sugar levels, and even a mild elevation of blood sugar levels translates to a dramatically increased risk for dementia, as recently reported in The New England Journal of Medicine. Keep in mind that this study showed a marked increased risk for dementia even in individuals without diabetes or even pre-diabetes.

In fact, there's a direct relationship between fasting blood sugar and the rate of shrinkage of the hippocampus (the brain’s memory center), as demonstrated in a recent issue of the esteemed journal Neurology. When it comes to your brain’s memory center, size does matter.

As the authors of this study stated, even in the absence of diabetes, "monitoring and management of plasma glucose levels could have an impact on cerebral health."

And what should your first step be in terms of “management of plasma glucose?”

To dramatically reduce carbohydrate intake while increasing your consumption of healthful fats. This is a central theme of the Grain Brain program and is fundamentally supported by a recent publication by researchers at the Mayo Clinic in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.

They found that elderly individuals who ate a high carbohydrate diet experienced an increased risk for developing dementia of close to 90% while the dementia risk was decreased by 42% in those who ate the most fat.

I encourage you all to read these citations and embrace the empowerment that this knowledge provides in terms of changing your brain’s destiny.

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