Healthy body, healthy brain.

When was the last time you thought about your brain’s health? You devote loads of time to staying slim and fit from the neck down but hardly a second looking after the thing that controls the whole body. On the other hand you might let yourself get fat and unfit, eat rubbish food, smoke, breathe polluted air, get stressed and drink too much alcohol, without thinking or caring about what that’s doing to your precious brain.

Then one day you find you can’t remember everyday words, you can’t add simple numbers, you suddenly forget the names of people you know really well, you can’t follow a simple recipe, and you start forgetting the way to familiar places. From then it can be a slow decline to the point where you’re entirely dependent on others to help you live. It’s like the engine of a car slowly corroding until in the end the car just doesn’t move.

Dementia and Alzheimer’s can have a strong hereditary element, and the largest influence is ageing, but large scale studies show that risk is lowest in people who live healthy lifestyles. Wouldn’t you rather live healthily and look after your brain than totally overlook it until it’s too late?

Because remember, there is no cure for dementia and Alzheimers.

Be brain aware, make changes to your life, not just a one or two changes but several.

  • Be active every day and get your heart rate up with some vigorous exercise a few times a week. Physical inactivity has direct negative effects on the structure and function of the brain. Physical activity has direct positive effects. Easy win.
  • Minimise stress as much as humanly possible and do things to counteract it, such as walking in natural green space, meditating, spending time with friends and loved ones. Stress can be self-induced through being ‘over-angry’, think about that and change that behaviour. Stress produces excess cortisol, which damages brain cells, there is robust evidence that chronic stress causes premature brain ageing.
  • Be social. Loneliness and social isolation are thought to increase the risk of dementia, possibly through related stress but the mechanism is not yet known.
  • Avoid type 2 diabetes, which is obesity and lifestyle related. Diabetes increases the risk of dementia. Studies suggest that the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease are in a diabetic state, partly due to the decrease in, or insensitivity to, insulin.
  • Get more and better sleep. Lack of adequate sleep raises cortisol. See ‘stress’ above.
  • Eat real food, not processed, packaged food. Food that contains artificial additives or that is highly processed and modified can cause an inflammatory response in the body as the body sees it as a foreign substance and goes into attack mode. Inflammation is a precursor to so many diseases, including, it’s thought, Alzheimer’s.
  • Eat good fats such as those in olive oil, oily fish, nuts and seeds. The western diet is high in Omega 6 fats and low in Omega 3s. When that balance is out of sync the body has an inflammatory response. Omega 6s come from refined vegetable oils found in foods such as crisps and fast foods. Plus when omega-3 is taken up by the body, some is broken down into molecules that have roles in brain health. Some reduce the body’s immune response, others are thought to be involved in protecting cells from damage.
  • Minimise alcohol – in fact there is a type of dementia specifically connected with alcohol. Alcohol is a toxin, it damages nerve cells and the blood vessels in the brain, it also causes a deficiency in Vitamin B1 which plays a strong part in brain function.
  • Don’t smoke. Smokers increase their chances of developing dementia by almost 50%. Tobacco is extremely harmful damages brain and body blood vessels and nerves, and causes chronic inflammation.
  • Avoid pollution. See smoking. And this applies not just to city dwellers but to people who regularly breathe in chemicals from body-care sprays or other airborne pollutants.
The past beats inside me like a second heart.
Jon Banville

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