Is forgetfulness inevitable? If my mother or father has dementia, am I destined to develop it also? How do I get rid of this mental fogginess? Is it possible to improve my concentration?
All of these are great questions with real answers. A decline in your memory or mental quickness is NOT a continuum on the road to dementia. Rest assured, the brain can be a resilient organ and capable of healing and improvement of function at any age. Our focus for this article is on cognition and how to optimize it. This will be different than treating advanced dementia, although there certainly exists some overlap in ways to improve your brain function even with a formal diagnosis of dementia.
First and fore-most, it is essential that we name and recognize in our lives the roadblocks to cognitive efficiency. There are several that may surprise you. Let's hit the big ones and offer a solution for each category.
Adequate blood flow to the brain is essential. The heart and lungs, which of course are central in our bodies, get preferential blood flow. All of the organs that live in our abdomen are next in line. As crazy as it seems, our brains are really considered part of our peripheral circulation. Therefore, it is extremely important that we have optimal circulation. People that suffer with high blood pressure will often not have good peripheral circulation. Patients that suffer with neuropathy (decreased blood flow to the hands and feet) will absolutely have decreased blood flow to their brain as well. Erectile dysfunction is really a symptom of the same process. If you suffer from any of these things or are living a very sedentary lifestyle then your brain is likely not getting optimal blood flow. To achieve optimal blood flow to our brain, it is important to manage hypertension with medication or lifestyle changes. And of utmost importance is to get up and move! It doesn’t have to be heavy exercise, just moderate movement such as a brisk walk or dancing will stimulate blood flow to reach all of the important peripheral systems. Your brain will thank you for it.
We have all heard the adage, “if you don't use it, you lose it”. We think of this oftentimes when we are talking about muscle building. But it absolutely holds true for our brain health. If we are not stimulating our brain, it becomes lazy. Great activities for brain stimulation include puzzles, reading and my personal favorite learning. Particularly, learning new skills that involve motor coordination are fantastic. Stimulate your brain each day. When we're learning something new it is important to turn off distractions and be fully engaged. It is not a luxury to take the time to learn about something that interests you. It truly can be healthy for your brain.
Inflammation can play a big role in what is referred to as “brain fog”. Your doctor can order blood tests that look for elevated inflammatory markers. However, even more reliable is being in tune with your body and how you feel. Other symptoms of inflammation can include fatigue, joint pain and bloating among others. If you suffer with these symptoms along with brain fog, then no blood tests are needed. Congratulations, you have “inflammation”. The most common causes of inflammation can be poor nutrition or environmental toxins. So, it is completely within our reach to decrease inflammation. Gluten, dairy and sugar are the most pro-inflammatory food categories for nearly everyone. Toxins include alcohol that we drink and chemicals in our household and personal care products. A glass of wine a day may possibly be beneficial for our cardiovascular health, but not necessarily for your brain. And definitely not in larger quantities. There are phone apps that you can download to test your personal care and household products. By scanning a barcode, it will rate the product's toxic load. Two that I like are EWG-Healthy Living and Think Dirty.
If one of your parents has dementia you no doubt worry that you may develop it as well. Even if you know that you have a predisposition for dementia with genomic testing, genetics plays a very small role in the development of most dementia. So, if you feel that you're at a higher risk then this is great motivation to combat all of the other contributing factors that are within your control!
If you have had a significant head injury (either with or without a loss of consciousness) or repeated smaller head injuries (think sports related trauma) then you may have trouble with concentration and therefore memory. Head trauma is certainly a contributing factor in cognitive decline. Obviously, some head injuries are impossible to avoid. However, if you participate in contact sports or high-risk recreation, please invest in a good quality helmet. I am so pleased to see more and more helmets being used in sports that previously did not require them.
Optimal mental health is key for optimal cognitive function. Depression and anxiety absolutely affect your ability to think clearly. Even if you don't suffer with formal anxiety or depression, chronic stress or toxic relationships will have the same effect. Our brains are consumed about how we are feeling and by our fears. It makes perfect sense that if our brains are focused on our feelings, then we are unable to process the information that we input efficiently. So, address these issues. Don't ignore them. Paying attention to your mental and spiritual health is not a luxury. Take just 10 minutes a day for meditation, prayer, journaling or whatever is your spiritual practice. This can absolutely decrease your stress and improve mental health therefore making you a more productive person!
If you know me, you know I can't get through a wellness topic without emphasizing the importance nutrition! Food truly can be our medicine. It isn't just about avoiding the inflammatory foods that we touched on earlier. It is important to flip a switch in our minds and see nutrition as the key to fueling our brain and its function. I don't know about you, but I used to make decisions about food based on what I wanted to “look like”. My food choices always got wiser the closer it got to shorts season! Now, I make decisions solely based on what I want to “feel like” or in this case “think like”. When making choices about what to eat think, “Is this good for my brain?” Hydration is important for brain function. You should consume 50 to 75% of your body weight in ounces of water each day. You want to pick foods that are nutrient dense while decreasing gluten, dairy and sugar. Super foods for the brain are rich in antioxidants, Omega-3s, flavonoids, vitamin E and B vitamins. Some great choices are blueberries, wild salmon, dark chocolate, turmeric, nuts and seeds, beans and avocados.
Key supplements for cognition include Vitamin A, Vitamin D, Methylated B complex, Nicotinamide Riboside, Resveratrol, Omega-3 to include DHA and EPA, Magnesium (threonate) and Zinc. There are lots of combinations products out there that combine many of these ingredients. And taking supplements does NOT replace good nutrition, it simply augments it.
Finally, stay connected! This has been hard to do in the last year but there are ways that we can find connection. We all know how to zoom now. We are starting to be able to wrap our brains around hugs and larger groups. A feeling of communion is absolutely good for your brain. Even for this introvert……...thank you for being my community!
Dr. Anne Morgan