An area of health that I specialise in is cognitive health where I see patients who would like to prevent cognitive decline and patients who have been diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or have early Alzheimer's disease. I also see the adult children of people with dementia or Alzheimer's who really don't want to follow in their parents footsteps. Unfortunately it is a growing area of health and also one that we can do much to prevent if we look after our cognitive health early on. In this article I have made a simple checklist of a few things for you to consider that will make a difference. It doesn't take much to turn down the "drivers" of cognitive decline.
- Choose meals with plenty of different coloured vegetables, including some raw in a little salad. These foods will provide vital antioxidants that help protect cells from oxidative damage.
- Instead of sugary treats choose fresh fruit, or choose sweet treats that are sweetened with stevia or monk fruit sweetener. Or ones that contain very low sugar such as my personal favourite organic 85% dark chocolate (fabulous antioxidants!). Excess sugar can drive inflammation in the body and may lead to issues with blood glucose metabolism and insulin resistance.
- Buy wild caught fish and preferably the smaller varieties such as salmon (not farmed), herrings, mackerel, sardines and anchovies for good omega 3s. Small fish such as whiting, garfish and snapper are also fine but contain less omega 3 fats. Larger fish tend to contain higher levels of mercury which certainly isn't ideal for brain health or general health. Don't go for flake, shark, swordfish or large tuna for this reason.
- Go for organic foods as much as possible. And if you can't buy all organic vegetables and fruit, do your best to avoid "the dirty dozen". You can read more here... Also look at that same website in the link for the "clean fifteen". Pesticides and herbicides can add to oxidative stress, damaging cells in the body.
- Swap pasta, noodles and rice for konjac substitutes or "zoodles" (noodles made from zucchini using a spiraliser). In my home kitchen, I do this on week nights and then relax a bit on the weekends with the starchy carbohydrate intake. This way the carbs balance out over the week without adding centimetres to my waistline. Rather than having bread every day you can lighten the carb load by choosing thin wraps, having wholegrain or seeded crispbread, choosing a protein + salad/vegetable, or a hearty chunky low starch vegetable and bean or chicken soup in cooler months. You'll find you're more alert in the afternoon by limiting the starchy carbs and going for protein + veggies. This simple diet tweak can make a big difference in preventing insulin resistance. An added bonus is that konjac (pasta, rice and noodles) contains a fabulous fibre that feeds the microbiome in the gut so it's a win-win situation.
- A recent study found that those who had levels of beta amyloid in their brain were still protected against cognitive decline with doing 8,900 steps a day. Beyond the specific effects that exercise has on our brains, it's also reduces our risk for Alzheimer's. It can help maintain a healthy body weight, reduce insulin resistance, reduce inflammation, improve blood pressure, and reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke. It also reduces stress and anxiety, while improving mood and sleep.
- What exercise is best? Aerobic exercise takes a slight lead over strengthening exercise, but both are vitally important especially as we age. These two different types of exercise activate different mechanisms, thus protecting against cognitive decline by different routes.
- If you love a drink then you consider having at least three to four alcohol-free days (AFDs) per week. Alcohol is a neurotoxin and this means it can affect brain function over years of drinking. When you do have a drink just have a couple rather than a lot. That can be a big ask for some people I realise however it's a great recommendation for long term good health benefits.
- Fast overnight for at least 12 hours from when you finish eating or drinking any calories at night to when you eat breakfast or calories the next morning. In the morning you can have a black tea or coffee or add just a splash of milk, without breaking the benefits of the fast. For some of my patients with specific genetic influences, I recommend fasting for at least 14-16 hours. This fasting period improves something called autophagy in the brain which essentially is when your body goes into repair mode. I like the analogy of cleaners coming in with the mops, dusters and vacuum cleaner to whiz around cleaning up the brain and body cells.