Cognitive Decline: 7 Ways To Protect Yourself

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Cognitive decline is common but preventable with dietary and lifestyle measures

Cognitive decline tops the list of health conditions that our society fears the most as we age, and for good reason: 1 in 3 seniors will die with a form of dementia. Every 65 seconds, someone gets diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. If we develop a disease like cancer or have a heart attack, while still devastating, they involve the body, not the mind. Diseases involving cognitive decline mean losing a part of who we are as a human - our personality, our memories, our thoughts.

While it is true that some of us are genetically predisposed to developing Alzheimer's disease, there are many things you can do to prevent it from happening. Keep reading for the top 7 ways to put a stop to cognitive decline and keep your brain healthy as the years go by.

Don't disregard this article if you're young -- our brains start to deteriorate starting at age 30! Doing preventive work now can lead to a later life that is long, healthy, and mentally sharp.

1. Exercise

Is there anything exercise isn't good for? We all know that being physically active is a great way to maintain a healthy weight and reduce the risk of disease, but did you know it can also strengthen your brain and prevent cognitive decline? During periods of physical activity, blood flow to the brain increases, which then promotes neural activation and efficiency [1] . This also leads to increased brain plasticity (plastic brain doesn't sound too good, but it is - it refers to the neuron's abilities to adapt to stressors and remain flexible) and a reduction in inflammatory markers [2] .

These effects are consistent throughout the lifespan; one study found that poor physical fitness levels at age 18 were linked to a 7-fold increased risk of developing early-onset dementia and mild cognitive impairment by age 45 [3] .

So, what kind of exercise is best?

Aerobic exercise, which gets your heart pumping, has been shown to improve brain function and increase the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that is essential for maintaining and growing new neurons [4] . In an almost 20-year-long study, those who maintained cardiorespiratory fitness throughout the study period had a reduced risk of developing dementia [5] .

Both aerobic exercise and resistance training can help with brain function

Resistance training has been shown to improve brain health by leading to an increase in grey matter thickness and reduced white matter atrophy; white matter of the brain decreases with cognitive decline [6] . Some research has found that thrice-weekly resistance training had a better impact on cognition than twice-weekly training [7] .

Exercise can also help to improve cognition once dementia has begun, especially in the early stages [8] . In adults with vascular cognitive impairment, those who aerobically exercise 3 times per week had an improvement in cognitive function over the 6-month study [9] .

We should also mention cognitive exercise or training, which usually involves puzzles, word games, or other brain activities. A randomized controlled trial of 50 patients with early Alzheimer's disease found that those who trained for 2 hours per week with linguistic exercises saw an increase in many cognitive abilities, including memory and word recall, while the control group saw a deterioration in these skills over the 15-week study [10] . Want to save yourself time and increase brain benefits? Memory training while exercising on a stationary bike led to improved memory, attention, and reasoning abilities compared to cognitive training after the exercise [11] .

2. Mediterranean Diet

A Mediterranean dietary pattern, which involves the consumption of vegetables, fruits, healthy fats, olive oil, fish, nuts, and beans, has been associated with improved cognitive function [12] .

A Mediterranean diet can help prevent cognitive decline

Although it's harder to study entire dietary patterns compared to single nutrients, a few trials have done so. The PREDIMED clinical trial found that those who ate a Mediterranean diet, supplemented either with 1 liter of olive oil per week or 30 grams of nuts per day, had improvements in a variety of cognitive tests [13] .

Another trial used the MIND diet, which was Mediterranean-style but focused on green leafy vegetables and berries as the main vegetable and fruit; those who followed the MIND diet had significantly lower rates of cognitive decline over the 4.7-year study [14] . Consumption of green leafy vegetables has been further studied; just 1.3 servings per day was linked to the study participants' brains seeming 11 years younger in age, in terms of cognition [15] .

3. Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fats, which are found predominantly in fatty fish like salmon and sardines, have been studied for their beneficial effects on brain health [16] . The primary omega-3 fatty acids are DHA and EPA; DHA constitutes up to 40% of the long-chain fats in the brain's grey matter [17] .

While epidemiological research has linked an increase in omega-3 fat consumption to better cognition, the results from randomized controlled trials are mixed [18] . One study did find a small increase in memory function in healthy older adults who supplemented with omega-3 fats [19] .

Although supplements may or may not prevent cognitive decline, many studies have shown a benefit of eating the fish itself, rather than taking fish oil pills. One study found that consumption of fish four times per week, compared to once or less, was linked to a lower rate of memory decline [20] .

Omega-3 fatty acids, especially in the form of fatty fish, can help improve brain health

4. Gingko Biloba Extract

Gingko biloba, sometimes known as the maidenhair tree, is native to China and its use dates back thousands of years in traditional Chinese medicine. Due to its high level of antioxidants, gingko biloba is widely studied for its effects on human health.

One study found that gingko biloba supplementation led to similar treatment outcomes as the dementia drug donepezil, but with fewer adverse effects than the drug [21] . A meta-analysis of four trials found that gingko biloba extract supplementation for 22-24 weeks led to an improvement in the behavioral and psychological symptoms associated with dementia [22] . While it can't be concluded that ginkgo biloba extract can treat dementia, there does appear to be some valid research for the prevention of cognitive decline.

5. Coffee

If you're a fan of a daily cup of joe (or two), you're in luck. Reviews have found that moderate coffee consumption is linked to a reduction in neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease [23] . Researchers are still trying to tease out whether it's the caffeine, antioxidants, or another unknown compound in coffee that provides benefits.

One study found that moderate coffee consumption was associated with an increase in the brain's white matter and cerebral blood flow in healthy older adults [24] . A 21-year cohort study found that people who had the lowest risk of developing dementia were coffee drinkers at midlife, to the tune of 3-5 cups per day [25] . One caveat: adding scoops of sugar and cream into your coffee will likely negate the benefits!

6. Resveratrol

Resveratrol is a plant compound that behaves like an antioxidant and is primarily found in red wine and grape skins. Studies have shown that resveratrol can increase cerebral blood flow, which may be beneficial for maintaining brain health [26] . Resveratrol is also anti-inflammatory and may decrease memory loss. In a 2014 trial, healthy adults who received resveratrol supplementation saw an increase in word retention and functional connectivity of the hippocampus [27] .

Another study found that neuroinflammation was reduced in Alzheimer's patients who received resveratrol, however, cognitive scores were not improved significantly [28] . One reason for conflicting results in studies may be that the form of resveratrol was not considered, as the most bioavailable form is trans-resveratrol.

7. Curcumin

Curcumin is the main bioactive compound in turmeric that gives it its characteristically bright yellow hue. Many in vitro studies have shown the potential mechanism for how curcumin could help prevent cognitive decline; it has anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and neuroprotective properties that may reduce the amyloid-beta plaques that are characteristic of Alzheimer's disease [29-30] .

Curcumin, the active compound in turmeric, may improve cognitive function in supplemental form

Similar to resveratrol, clinical human trials have varying results, with some showing no benefits of curcumin supplementation to cognitive function [31] . Nonetheless, one study did find that 90 mg of bioavailable curcumin twice daily led to significant improvements on memory and attention tests in healthy adults [32] .

An important point about curcumin is that it has low bioavailability on its own; the compound piperine (found in black pepper) can increase curcumin absorption by up to 2,000%. If a curcumin supplement does not contain black pepper or piperine, there is a low likelihood it will help any condition therapeutically, although it will still taste good in your curry.

Your Takeaways On How To Protect Yourself From Cognitive Decline:

  • Although genetic predisposition is strong with neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer's disease, there is plenty you can do to protect your brain and prevent cognitive decline.
  • There is evidence for aerobic exercise, resistance training, and eating a Mediterranean-style diet with moderate coffee intake and plenty of fish rich in omega-3 fats in preventing dementia and improving brain health.
  • Supplements of gingko biloba, resveratrol, and curcumin may help to protect your brain against cognitive decline, although additional research is still warranted.
Show references
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  22. Treatment effects of Ginkgo biloba extract EGb 761 on the spectrum of behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia: meta-an
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  30. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6273006/
  31. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3580400/?report=reader
  32. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1064748117305110?via%3Dihub
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