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5 Simple Lifestyle Tweaks To Optimize Your Brain Health, A Neurologist Explains

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November 15, 2016

Billions of dollars are being invested in an attempt to develop a magic-bullet cure for Alzheimer's, a heart-wrenching disease affecting more than 5.4 million Americans. But despite the promising announcements that regularly appear in the newsfeed, we remain years if not decades away from a pharmaceutical answer to this devastating condition.

What makes this situation even more frustrating for those of us on the front lines is the simple, straightforward knowledge that, by and large, Alzheimer's disease is a preventable situation. It's now well-established in our most well-respected, peer-reviewed scientific journals that lifestyle choices play a powerfully important role in determining who does and who doesn't end up with Alzheimer's dementia.

My last two books, Grain Brain and Brain Maker, were deep dives focused on why the brain degenerates and looking at it from a detailed scientific perspective. My new book, The Grain-Brain Whole-Life Plan is dedicated to how to embrace this new science and incorporate it into a life plan that paves the way not only for brain health but also for overall health. Here are five of the most important things you can do, starting today:

1. Lower your blood sugar.

Elevated blood sugar is profoundly toxic to the brain. Type 2 diabetes, now affecting approximately 29 million Americans1, is associated with more than doubling the risk for Alzheimer's disease as well as the development of "tangles" within the brain itself, that represent the harbinger of Alzheimer's to come. Even without becoming a diabetic, just having mild elevation of blood sugar also sets the stage for dementia as was recently described in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The simplest way to lower your sugar level is to lower your sugar intake. Cutting sugar and carbohydrates from your diet while at the same time bumping up your consumption of healthful fats and fiber are surefire ways to gain control over your blood sugar and directly reduce your risk for Alzheimer's disease.

2. Get aerobic exercise.

We all feel good when we get some exercise, but, as was recently demonstrated by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh2, aerobic exercise actually changes our gene expression. It activates genes that go on to create a specific growth hormone for the brain called BDNF.

Having higher BDNF stimulates the growth of new brain cells in the brain's memory center and is associated with a dramatic reduction in the risk for Alzheimer's disease as was recently reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association3.

3. Take DHA.

DHA, the omega-3 found in fish, fish oils, and to a lesser extent in grass-fed beef, like aerobic exercise, also enhances BDNF production. Research at Rush University Medical Center has demonstrated much less likelihood of getting Alzheimer's disease in folks having both the highest consumption of DHA as well as the highest blood levels of this important omega-3.

4. Reassess your drug habits.

You may be on medication that is important for your health, but always consider the risk-benefit ratio. For example, millions of Americans are taking acid-blocking drugs called PPIs (also known as proton-pump inhibitors). These are drugs that are advertised heavily for the treatment of "heartburn." The message seems to be that stomach acid is a bad thing. In reality, we desperately depend on stomach acid for important things like activating our digestive enzymes and allowing us to absorb vitamin B12.

As it turns out, these acid-blocking drugs are anything but risk-free. As was recently published in the journal JAMA Neurology, chronic use of these acid-blocking drugs is associated with a 44 percent increased risk for dementia. Other dementia-related drugs include commonly prescribed antidepressant medications, as well as drugs for asthma and allergies.

5. Socialize with others.

I guess this brings new meaning to the term "herd mentality"! Multiple studies have shown that folks who have larger social networks have remarkable preservation of their brain function. What's more, establishing more social connections can actually benefit brain function even in those in whom there's already been a decline.

President Kennedy once told us, "The time to repair a roof is when the sun is shining." Hopefully, the sun is shining for you right now, and now is the time to do everything you can to keep it that way!

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