Most of us are aware that stress is one of the key drivers behind many of our modern health complaints. Stress is a risk factor for hormone imbalance, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and cancer as well as mental illnesses like anxiety or depression and even brain-related conditions such as Alzheimer’s. Ever wondered how stress can have such a devastating impact on our body? The mind-body connection, or the stress-illness connection for purposes of this article, works in different ways. It’s useful to remember firstly that the stress response is meant to improve your chances of surviving a physical threat to your
Dietary and Lifestyle Factors
The human brain is truly amazing. Our ability to form memories, speak and understand language, process information and focus on multiple tasks at once is all part of our complex neurology. Yet, it is also well known that our cognitive performance declines with age, normally starting as early as 45 years of age. How can we keep our mind “sharp” and slow this decline? Although genetics play a role, environmental factors can at the very least alter the path. Let’s explore.
Consider that the following factors have been found to impair cognitive performance and memory:
- chronic alcohol abuse
- cardiovascular disease (including hypertension and elevated homocysteine)
- type 2 diabetes, poor glucose management and obesity
- poor diet (specifically high intake of total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol)
- multiple mineral and vitamin deficiencies
- skipping breakfast
- high stress and elevated cortisol (your “stress hormone”)
Well, it should be obvious that the first steps in preserving cognitive function would be to prevent or treat the above conditions. Not to oversimplify matters, but this is more than possible. This means drinking enough water, eating regular and balanced meals high in vegetables and low in fat, drinking alcohol moderately and knowing your limits in order to properly manage stress. Aside from these imperative changes, here are some more specifics on modifiable factors:
Diet: A diet high in polyunsaturated fats (i.e. fish), monounsaturated fats (i.e. olive oil), vitamin E, polyphenols and antioxidants (i.e. citrus fruits and vegetables) has been shown to possibly slow down the rate of cognitive decline and prevent progression to Alzheimer’s Disease.
Mental Exercise: Research has shown that the old adage, “Use it or lose it”, holds true in the context of cognitive health. Animal studies have shown that mental exercise increases the growth of the nervous system, while clinical observations support this idea that the human brain is capable of rebuilding failed circuits. A randomized control trial performed in 2006 showed that a cognitive training program for 10 weeks lead to significant cognitive improvement over those individuals that did not participate in the training program.
Physical Exercise: has also shown promise in the prevention and treatment of cognitive deterioration. Certain studies have found that physical exercise aids executive function and overall cognitive function, while also reducing the amount of brain density loss with age (specifically in areas used for executive processes).
Nutritional Supplementation: Certain nutrients have been proven as effective treatments for cognitive decline and should be considered adjunctive measures with dietary and lifestyle improvements. This will be covered in part 2 of this blog series!
What to do if you are concerned about declining cognitive function?
If you’re having difficulty, on a daily basis, with simple tasks like remembering the location of basic items, bathing, handling finances or maintaining hobbies then it may be of concern. Speak with your doctor about a proper assessment, which may include a physical exam, lab tests and a Mini-Mental State Exam (MMSE). Although the aforementioned dietary and lifestyle factors may be beneficial for your declining cognition, medical attention may be warranted.
Stay tuned for part 2 when we explore evidence-based nutrients for optimal cognitive function!
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