Like many Alzheimer's advocates, I support increased funding for Alzheimer's research. The goal is to discover a cure. However, the current reality is that there is no sure way to prevent Alzheimer's and no cure in sight.
Does that mean that there is no information available to help us? Absolutely not.
The 2014 International Alzheimer's Conference presented copious information about ongoing studies and other scientific data. These international researchers came away from the conference agreeing about many things. To me, the news that affects most of us is that lifestyle changes that we can make right now can have a major impact on how we age and how soon some of us will exhibit symptoms of Alzheimer's disease.
The scientists presented studies showing that a healthy diet, moderate exercise and an active mind can delay symptoms of Alzheimer's for up to ten years in one out of three people who develop the disease.
With this information in mind, I asked Dr. Bruce Daggy, Ph.D., Adjunct Professor in the Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences Department of Florida State University some questions about what we can do to help stave off cognitive decline and generally keep our bodies healthy as we age:
Q: Do you recommend any special diet to help preserve the brain?
A: To start with, that which is good for your body is also good for your brain, because your brain depends on a healthy body to function at its best. So a diet that helps you maintain a healthy body weight and fully supplies your nutritional needs is the place to start. Supplements can help fill in the nutritional gaps between what our food intake provides and optimal levels of vitamins and minerals. There are nutrients that have been clinically tested in supplement form and found to support short-term or long-term cognitive function. One example is Omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil (especially the fatty acid DHA).
There have also been other ingredients recently studied for cognitive benefits. These include true guarana extract (not the caffeine concentrate labeled as guarana and often found in so-called energy drinks), certain B vitamins, and recently, certain plant molecules, called polyphenols, found in cocoa and in a particular Chardonnay seed extract. Sadly, drinking Chardonnay wine won't have the same effect!
Q: Your last statement probably brought some disappointed sighs, but we do want to try to do the right thing. What is your opinion on certain berries, nuts or other "magic" foods when it comes to brain health?
A: I have a dislike for the characterization of specific foods as ‘magical.' There's too much hype backed by too little science. We need a foundation of a balanced, varied diet, rich in fruits and vegetables in a variety of colors. But again, it is true that getting everything you need from food alone can be a challenge.
Q: There are many conflicting studies about statins for cholesterol control, yet statins are widely prescribed. What is your opinion on statins, cholesterol control and brain health?
A: Too much cholesterol in the blood, especially the "bad" cholesterol or LDL, is bad for the health of the blood vessels, and that is bad for the brain. The brain is only about 2 percent of body weight but can use 20-25 percent of blood flow! So, good cardiovascular health is important to the brain. Don't smoke. Aim for a healthy body weight, and work with your doctor to manage your cardiovascular risk factors like LDL cholesterol and blood pressure.
Of some concern, the use of popular cholesterol-lowering drugs called statins has been noted by the FDA to sometimes be associated with decline in cognitive function. Exactly why this is so is not certain, but anyone on a statin who experiences loss of mental acuity should contact their doctor immediately.
Q: We all know that exercise is good for us. How much exercise do you think is needed to keep the brain healthy?
A: Experts have defined a basic requirement for about 30 minutes a day of brisk walking, or something equivalent to that, most days of the week. This can be done in 10 or 15 minute segments. For example I usually pedal my bike to work, 15 minutes each way. If I do that 5 days a week, and then swim, garden, or make time for some other fun activity on weekends, that's my basic requirement. Some resistance exercise as well as flexibility training is good to add. Generally speaking, people who have lost a lot of weight need more minutes of exercise to help keep the weight off.
And let's not forget about exercising the brain itself! Throughout life, seek to learn new things. Play games, solve puzzles. There are online programs that will assess your current mental strengths and weakness, and offer a training regimen designed for you.
Q: Obesity is a major health issue in our country. How does obesity affect the brain?
A: Obesity is associated with increased risk of dementia. The mechanism could be in part through cardiovascular risk factors, which obesity also makes worse. Obesity also increases the risk of type 2 diabetes, which is associated with cognitive decline. Again, a healthy body supports a healthy mind.
Q: BMI is currently used by most physicians to determine if we are at a healthy weight. What is your opinion is about using BMI as a tool for determining health?
A: BMI is a tool to estimate excess body fat. The desirable range is between 18.5 and 25 kg per meter squared in height. It's not a perfect tool. A body builder or football linebacker would tend to have a high BMI but low body fat—muscle is dense, so someone with more than the usual amount of muscle can have a high BMI. Conversely, you could have a normal BMI but low muscle mass, and still have too much body fat. Combining BMI with waist circumference gives a better picture. A high BMI with a small waist probably means above average muscle, not too much fat. A BMI of 25 with a big waist probably means you should work to be fitter.
Q: Many people develop osteoarthritis or other joint issues as they age. If a person must limit types of exercise because of joint issues, what is safest kind of exercise?
A: I have bad feet and ankles from a series of old injuries, but that doesn't keep me off a bike or keep me from swimming or walking in shoes with proper support. Nor does it stop resistance training. Find a trainer to offer specific advice if you are not sure, and consult your doctor before starting, if you have concerns about what is safe for you to do. Starting slowly, particularly if you need to lose weight, is a way to minimize risk of injury. Once the weight comes off, that takes a lot of strain off the joints.
Q: If you had to give people a single piece of advice to age well physically and mentally, what would it be?
A: Value your health; invest time in it. Make positive changes that you can stick with, in your lifestyle and in your nutritional regimen. When I started biking to work, I kept a log of my miles, set goals and gave myself a pat on the back for reaching them. Now biking to work has become habit; I no longer need to track it.
Dr. Bruce Daggy has a Ph.D. in Nutritional Biochemistry from Cornell University and a B.A. in Biology from University of Virginia. He has authored about 80 publications and abstracts, and has developed 13 patents in his name. He is a member of the American Society of Nutrition, a Fellow in the American College of Nutrition, and has assisted the Obesity Society, the American Diabetes Association, the American Association of Diabetes Educators, and other healthcare organizations in a variety of volunteer capacities.