Protecting and Training Your Brain to Prevent Cognitive Decline and Dementia

by Dr. Susan Tanner, MD

June was Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month–a time to spread the word and discuss dementias and cognitive decline and how the brain is affected by genetic and environmental factors. There were articles and events devoted to encouraging people to train their brains to fight the disease and to protect their brains from ongoing damage. Mold exposure and the neurologic and neuropsychiatric implications of mold illness fit into this topic on 2 fronts: the need for environmental awareness and vigilance as it pertains to water-damaged environments as well as the brain and body care needed to address the damage that can occur as a result of mold exposure. Thus, what follows are some selective steps anyone and everyone can take to not only prevent damage to brain cells but also to maintain mental acuity at the highest levels possible whether mold is a part of your health hurdles or not.

Steps to Prevent Cognitive Damage and to Maintain Mental Acuity

1. Avoid toxins. (Probably a predictable way to start, but this point cannot go unsaid as it is perhaps one of the most important.) The insult of being called a “fathead” is actually a compliment! The brain is made of phospholipids, which are a type of fat.  Unfortunately, though, many toxins including mycotoxins from molds, are “lipophilic”, meaning that they are drawn to and imbed in fat cells. The buildup of any of these toxins can cause inflammation, a decrease in blood circulation, and eventual shrinkage in brain size and structure.   Obviously, then, it is of utmost importance that the air we take in or substances we touch or ingest be as free of toxins as possible.  Ongoing surveillance of our indoor air quality is one fairly simple and essential thing to do. Avoiding any unnecessary chemicals, such as air fresheners, chemical additives, pesticides, and herbicides in addition to avoiding water-damaged homes and buildings where high levels of mold are a problem help to lower the total body load and prevent inflammation.

2. Get enough sleep! Most adults require at least seven to nine hours per night for optimal recovery and brain function. Many people survive on six or fewer hours as they feel they have to, not realizing the cognitive compromise that ensues. A study conducted in 2017 that examined the effects of sleep deprivation on brain health found that “[sleep deprivation] triggers a complex set of bidirectional changes in brain activity and connectivity — depending on the specific functional operation and anatomical regions in question.”  Furthermore, the study researchers made sure to point out that sleep deprivation made the brain unstable: “Equally important, however, are moment-to-moment fluctuations in brain activity that occur during performance across the timescale of minutes, reflecting a neural phenotype of regional and network instability. This is especially apparent in the domains of attention and working memory.” Put simply, there’s a reason babies are supposed to sleep so much! Developing brains are busy forming neural pathways and retaining new memories. And, while adults don’t need the same amount of sleep as babies, adult brains are still undergoing many of the same processes during sleep especially when it comes to the pathways created for focus, attention, and memory. Thus, without adequate sleep, our brains cannot function properly. Additionally, sleep apnea, a sleep disorder where breathing is interrupted repeatedly during sleep, affects a significant percentage of the population and has been shown to accelerate brain aging and have definite deleterious impacts on cognitive function.  Not everyone who snores has sleep apnea, and nor is all apnea associated with snoring, so monitoring sleep with a wearable device may help you see if further evaluation and treatment with a sleep doctor is indicated.

3. Focus on nutrient density.  In articles about dietary recommendations, we often stress more about what to avoid than what to really focus on increasing, but, when it comes to brain health, making sure nutrient density and food quality are high is imperative. A nutrient-dense food or meal contains more of all the essential nutrients you need to thrive. Following a dietary plan such as the Mediterranean diet, which instead of calories focuses on healthy fats, proteins, and phytonutrients is a great baseline to follow. I advocate including plenty of the following in a healthy brain diet:

  • Vegetables ( leafy greens like spinach, kale, or any type of green)
  • Blueberries
  • Fish ( wild caught and from the sea, not lakes)
  • Whole grains (in moderation and gluten-free, if necessary)
  • Nuts
  • Eggs
  • Protein (the amino acid tyrosine found in most protein sources triggers the production of norepinephrine and dopamine, which are linked to mental alertness)
  • Dark chocolate
  • Green tea

4. Prioritize exercise. While the brain is not actually a muscle, the theory of atrophy and laws of physics still apply to it even if only metaphorically. A body at rest stays at rest. A body in motion stays in motion. Like any other part of the body, the brain needs to stay active in order to function properly and to not become out of shape. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recommends that adults, regardless of age bracket, get between 150 (2 hours and 30 minutes) and 300 minutes (5 hours) of exercise each week, and for good reason. Moving your body around quite literally forces your brain to keep those neural pathways functioning. A 2018 study found that “[physical exercise, PE] determines positive biological and psychological effects that affect the brain and cognitive functioning and promote a condition of wellbeing. Physical exercise plays an important role in counteracting normal and pathological aging. Recent evidence has shown that PE triggers potent neuroplastic phenomena, partly mediated by epigenetic mechanisms.” HHS is quick to point out that “exercise” can mean different things for everyone, though. Perhaps more active adults are able to run or bike, while others need to slow the pace to a walk, ride a stationary bike, or swim. Regardless of the method, the important part is that you get your heart rate elevated and you keep your body moving each and every day.

5. Adopt a growth mindset. Regardless of age, one of the best ways to support brain health is to put ourselves in a position to learn, grow and expand our minds. Choosing to learn something new can be an excellent step in improving cognitive health. Fortunately (and particularly in the digital age), there is no shortage of ways to learn about any given topic. Pick up a book about a topic previously unstudied that sounds interesting, take a course online, or go to cooking classes at a local college. You could learn a new skill or hobby, anything from art to needlework to gardening. “Engage in activities that require thought—something you are not able to do without effort,” says Dr. Krystal L. Culler, DBH, M.A., Founder of Your Brain Health Matters and a Senior Atlantic Fellow for Equity in Brain Health with the Global Brain Health Institute. “Pick up a new puzzle book the next time you’re at the store. If your preference is for a word-based puzzle, purchase a number puzzle, or vice versa. Ongoing engagement in a variety of activities sparks new neuronal growth in the brain known as neuroplasticity. It’s a myth of aging that the brain is not able to grow new neurons. It’s never too early—nor too late—to try something new for your brain health.” Exercising your brain can mean engaging in new activities and challenges that cause you to have to learn something new like a hobby or skill, but can also include repeating tried and true or old hobbies that you are already good at, but have more of an advanced knowledge of. Both are beneficial to maintaining cognitive function because one activates new brain pathways while the other activates formerly established brain pathways and keeps them “fit.” Additionally, as you challenge yourself and set your expectations higher, the power of positivity can have cumulative effects. For example, the Pygmalion Effect (sometimes referred to as the Rosenthal Effect) says that high expectations lead to strong performance (and therefore, more positive outcomes). Conversely, low expectations lead to worse performance. In other words, by thinking positively, you’re essentially setting your expectations higher, and believing that positive results will follow. For example, if you believe you can finish a crossword puzzle, you’re more likely to keep working at it until you finish it. But if you believe you’ll never finish it because it’s too hard, or you’re not smart enough, you’re more likely to set the puzzle down. In many ways, the Pygmalion Effect is viewed as a self-fulfilling prophecy. So, keep learning, challenging yourself, AND believing in your abilities to accomplish your goals.

6. Meditate. Meditation is an excellent brain workout and studies have found numerous benefits for the brain. Short prompts to practice mindfulness such as breathing techniques, gratitude exercises, and minute mindfulness techniques, among other types of meditation can be introduced to your daily routine to support your well-being. If you’re new to meditation, start with short intervals–perhaps only a few minutes per day, and try to work your way up to 20 minutes or more. Beginners often benefit from having a guide to walk them through the process and then graduating to more self-guided meditation practices. Being that I am an enthusiast of the Peloton platform, their app has excellent guided meditations with many different time intervals and focuses.

7. Engage in social activities. When children are young, parents are instructed to use language around them constantly. Some parenting advice websites encourage parents to read anything—literally anything, even a cookbook—to infants so they benefit from hearing words spoken as they’re learning to form coherent sounds themselves. Pediatricians recommend daily reading to children from birth until the child can read on their own. And then, they encourage kids to read books alone, or aloud to their parents. As children begin to speak, parents are encouraged to engage them in conversation at every opportunity, rather than sitting them in front of a screen to watch TV or movies. The reason behind this is that TV is not interactive. They do not learn social skills or conversational language if they’re not interacting with another person. This theory applies throughout our entire lives, but oftentimes, we’re working or interacting with fellow parents, or colleagues, so we’re having frequent, and regular conversations with people. However, as we get older, retire from work, and we become less physically able to leave the home, we’re less likely to engage in frequent conversations and regular social interactions, and those neural pathways can get rusty. Making and maintaining connections with other people helps a sense of community, and improves outcomes in aging populations. Social hobbies that allow interaction with others are imperative for cognitive support and function as well as mental health.

Brain-Boosting Supplements

Now that we have covered some basic steps anyone can take to maintain brain health, I want to also address nutritional supplements for brain health.  Over the years, a number of herbs and vitamins have been suggested as helpful for brain health.   As with many non-pharmaceutical products, it is hard to find true double-blind studies to prove that any one of these is useful in the prevention or reversal of cognitive impacts, but the mechanisms by which many of these acts to improve circulation, decrease oxidative stress and inflammation, reduce insulin resistance, and modulate excessive hormonal stimulation would certainly seem reasonable.  The studies that have been conducted on the following supplements have been positive:

  • Ginkgo Biloba
  • Ginseng
  • Omega-3 Fish Oil
  • Methyl Folate
  • B Vitamins
  • Vitamin D
  • Choline
  • Curcumin Longvida
  • Bacopa
  • Phosphatidylserine
  • Acetyl Carnitine
  • Huperzine A (a substance found in the herb Chinese moss)
  • Lactobacillus plantarum DR7 (clinically studied probiotic strain proven to improve mood and support healthy cognition and memory in animals and humans by enhancing the serotonin pathway while stabilizing the dopamine pathway)

Some people take one or two of these, and others take the entire list, but having a knowledgeable healthcare practitioner to guide you in this area is important! It is also important with any of these supplements to make sure you are incorporating their cofactors into your regimen too so that the body is able to utilize them to the best of its ability and to maximize their benefits. Many can also be found in combination formulas to deliver the most bang for your buck. Some combination formulas containing many of these ingredients that are also specially formulated for mold sufferers are Adrenal Boost (B Vitamins and Chinese herbs that show promise for memory and endurance), CellTropin (a homeopathic formula that helps with circulation, cognition, and energy levels and contains Ginkgo Biloba), Phosphatidyl Choline (great for cell membrane health, detoxification, and phospholipid balance and maintenance), Microflora Mood & Mind Support (a probiotic containing Lactobacillus plantarum DR7).

Preserving brain and cognitive health is no different than the steps we take in so many other areas of health.  Now that you are aware of the importance of taking these steps, please make the effort to care for the gift of your brain.  Gently nurture it, protect it, and care for it so that as you age, you can do so with greater clarity, independence, confidence, and peace.

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