How to Stay Sharp as a Tack
Friday, October 02, 2009 by: Dr. Julian Whitaker
(NaturalNews) A few days ago a song got stuck in my head- the slow, haunting violin melody that set the mood in the movie Platoon. But I couldn't recall who wrote it, and it bugged me. Later, when I wasn't thinking about it, I suddenly remembered it was Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings.
We all have episodes like this. We forget names and misplace things. We lose our train of thought, and we walk into rooms with no recollection of why we went there in the first place. This is normal human behavior. Now, forgetting a close family member's name, constantly repeating yourself, or getting lost in familiar places is another issue. Still, even run-of-the-mill memory lapses can be disconcerting, especially if you're older. You may wonder, "Am I losing it? Is Alzheimer's just around the corner?"
It's a valid fear. More than 5 million Americans are living with this disease, and the older you are, the greater your risk. The upside is that there are a number of steps you can take to maintain and actually improve your memory. Let's take a look at the latest research.
Australian researchers reported in a 2008 JAMA study that when people with mild memory problems exercised for 50 minutes three times a week, their cognitive function was enhanced. The exercise wasn't strenuous- most people walked. But the results were significant and improvements endured for at least a year, even though the study lasted only 24 weeks.
Among its many benefits, exercise improves blood flow to the brain. This three-pound organ consumes about 20 percent of the oxygen and glucose you take in, and when poor circulation hampers their delivery, memory is obviously affected. Physical activity also helps control blood pressure, blood sugar, and weight. Hypertension is the number-one cause of "mini-strokes" that can lead to severe cognitive dysfunction. Diabetes before age 65 doubles the risk of Alzheimer's disease. And abdominal obesity during midlife triples the risk of dementia at age 70!
Take a Look at Your Drug Regimen
A host of drugs can impair memory, and the usual suspects- sedatives, sleep aids, painkillers, and psychiatric meds- are just the tip of the iceberg.
Zantac and Tagamet, acid blockers for ulcers and GERD, have been found to cause memory decline in a third of older people who use them. Statin drugs prescribed for lowering cholesterol are linked with both acute temporary amnesia and long-term cognitive problems. Some antihistamines (Benadryl and Sudafed), antibiotics (Cipro and Keflex), antihypertensive medications (beta-blockers), and anticholinergics (used to treat asthma as well as urinary and gastrointestinal problems) are also implicated in cognitive dysfunction, especially in older people.
Talk to your doctor if you're on any drugs. Safe alternatives are available for virtually all of them.
Consider Hormone Replacement Therapy
Hormone replacement therapy ameliorates many aspects of aging, including memory loss. Cognitive problems are a well-recognized symptom of hypothyroidism, or low thyroid function. In fact, this condition can actually mimic Alzheimer's. Because a significant percentage of older women and men have undiagnosed hypothyroidism, I encourage everyone over age 50 to have their thyroid hormone levels checked. Natural thyroid replacement can make a world of difference.
The research on estrogen and testosterone isn't as clear cut. However, my clinical experience has been that men who use supplemental testosterone and women who use bioidentical hormone replacement therapy usually report improvements in alertness, concentration, and overall sense of well-being.
Surf the Web
The admonition to "use it or lose it" isn't news. We've known for years that people who read, play musical instruments, do puzzles, and are otherwise involved in stimulating activities have a reduced risk of memory impairment. Mental exercise builds what scientists call "cognitive reserve." By increasing the number and variety of neural connections and networks, the brain becomes more resilient to damage.
So what creates cognitive reserve? Higher education, challenging work and leisure activities- and searching the Internet. UCLA researchers discovered that people over age 55 who regularly "surfed the Web" had twice as much activity in the areas of the brain involved in complex reasoning and decision making while engaging in this activity.
Listen to Memory-Enhancing CDs
When I first came across CDs that claimed to enhance memory, the idea sounded too good to be true. But then I looked at the research. These CDs are based on a well-studied technology called brainwave entrainment that uses rhythmic stimulus such as sound or light to synchronize the brain's electrical cycles. In one study, individuals who listened to these CDs for at least 70 minutes for 25 days in a row reported feeling more attentive and mentally clear- and their IQ test scores improved by an average of 18.9 percent!
I've tried several brain entrainment systems over the years, and many of them require special glasses and headphones. These CDs, however, are by far my favorite because they can be used anytime, anywhere. I've been playing them as background music in my office and car, and though I don't know if I'm getting any smarter, I do feel more clear-headed and relaxed.
Eat, Drink, and Get Smart
There is a consensus that the best "brain foods" are those that address the underlying processes in age-related degeneration: inflammation and free-radical damage. That being said, the standard American diet of meat, potatoes, breads, sweets, and processed foods is a recipe for dementia. Saturated fat fuels inflammation. Potatoes, breads, and sweets precipitate insulin resistance and weight gain. And processed foods are devoid of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients that nourish the brain.
Replace meat with salmon and other omega-3- rich fish that dampen inflammation. Eliminate starches and sweets, and eat more beans and other low-glycemic carbohydrates. And load up on protective nutrients by eating plenty of vegetables and a little fruit. If you're looking for a food plan to follow, make it the Mediterranean diet, which, in addition to these items, includes modest amounts of olive oil and wine. A recent study revealed that older people who most closely adhered to a Mediterranean diet over four and a half years were 28 percent less likely to develop cognitive impairment.
I also recommend drinking coffee. You probably know that coffee makes you more alert and improves short-term memory, but did you realize it also protects against Alzheimer's? Scandinavian scientists recently found that people who drank three to five cups of coffee a day during middle age were 65 percent less likely to develop dementia!
Take Vitamin D...
Studies on the diverse benefits of vitamin D keep pouring in, and one of the latest focuses on cognitive function. Researchers tested the vitamin D blood levels of nearly 2,000 Brits over age 65. After adjusting for age, education, and other factors, they found that those with low levels of vitamin D were more than twice as likely to have cognitive problems.
Deficiencies in this vitamin are common among the general population, but they're rampant in older people, who have a decreased ability to produce vitamin D in the skin. One of the most important things you can do to preserve your memory is to get your blood level of this vitamin tested and take supplements to bring it into the optimal range.
...And Other Supplements
Vitamin D isn't the only nutrient that improves brain health. Vitamin B12 guards against age-related brain shrinkage and reduces risk of dementia. Vitamin B3 (nicotinamide) lowers levels of a protein linked to Alzheimer's. Folic acid and vitamins B6 and B12 keep toxic homocysteine in check. And you can't protect against free-radical damage without antioxidants.
Fish oil is crucial because it provides DHA, a dominant fat in the brain, and EPA, a potent anti-inflammatory. Curcumin, an extract from turmeric, curbs inflammation, and vinpocetine, a periwinkle extract, improves cerebral blood flow. Phosphatidylcholine (PC) and phosphatidylserine (PS) are also important constituents of neuronal cell membranes, plus PC is a precursor to acetylcholine, a key neurotransmitter.
Due to inefficient absorption and poor diet, the vast majority of older Americans are deficient in some or all of these nutrients. Simply correcting nutritional deficiencies can engender dramatic improvements in memory and general health. Therefore, I cannot over-emphasize the importance of a good nutritional supplement program when it comes to cognitive support.
Keep Your "Entries" Intact
Oscar Wilde once said, "Memory is the diary that we all carry about with us." Keep your "entries" intact by taking these recommendations to heart, and enjoy optimal cognitive function for years to come.
The easiest way to meet the suggested supplement recommendations is to take a good daily multivitamin, two or more fish oil capsules, and a combination brain/memory formula. Look for these products in your health food store or call (800) 722-8008 to order my formula, Memory Essentials.
Talk to your doctor about bioidentical hormone replacement therapy and vitamin D testing. For information on receiving these services at the Whitaker Wellness Institute, call (800) 488-1500.
To order iMusic's memory-enhancing BrainAmp CDs, call (800) 722-8008.
Huang TL, et al. A comprehensive review of the psychological effects of brainwave entrainment. Altern Ther Health Med. 2008 Sep-Oct;14(5):38-50.
Lautenschlager NT, et al. Effect of physical activity on cognitive function in older adults at risk for Alzheimer disease: a radomized trial. JAMA. 2008;300(9):1027-1037.
Llewellyn DJ, et al. Serum 25-Hydroxyvitamin D concentration and cognitive impairment. J Geriatr Psych Neurol. 2009 Feb 4. E-pub ahead of print.
Scarmeas N, et al. Mediterranean diet and mild cognitive impairment. Arch Neurol. 2009 Feb;66(2):216-225.
Small GW, et al. Your brain on Google: patterns of cerebral activation during internet searching. Am J Geriatr Psychiatry. 2009 Feb;17(2):116-126.
Spira AP, et al. Sleep-disordered breathing and cognition in older women. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2008 Jan;56(1):45-50.