Brain health and function starts declining as early as age 24.
Brain fog, memory problems, problems with focus and concentration and even anxiety and depression are all manifestations of a multifactorial imbalance that can include behavioral patterns, genetic and neurochemical factors, and imbalances in the body – from the microbiome to metabolism (1). The number of people living with Parkinson’s Disease is expected to double between 2010 and 2040. The rate of Alzheimer’s Disease is expected to triple (5 million to 16 million) by 2050 (2). In an age where degenerative brain diseases such as are on the rise, brain health is more than ever a crucial part of our whole-person approach to medicine and needs to be considered early (3).
How does the brain work?
More metabolically active than the rest of our body, the brain comprises only 2% of our body weight, but consumes 25% of our energy and 25% of our oxygen demand. The brain is connected by a vast and varied information network to every part of our body. It is our control center and the homeland of our consciousness, as well as our subconscious which determines up to 95% of our behavior (4). There are scientifically proven close connections between the brain and our gut via and our heart as well as our other organs through direct neuronal innervation and indirectly through powerful chemical communication, i.e. hormones and neurotransmitters (5).
Brain health and development starts in the womb with early gestation and continues through at least the first 2 years of life. But research suggests that the foundations of our consciousness and subconsciousness (what we think, believe and how we interpret the world) is developed until the age of 5 or 7 years old.
Research also shows that we actually have greater neuroplasticity – the ability of the brain to change and grow new connections – throughout life than originally believed. We actually grow new neurons and continue to change and even heal our nervous systems throughout our lifetimes. Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain and peripheral nervous system to form, reform and reorganize connections, especially in response to learning or experience or in response to injury (6, 7, 8). And we now know that we can improve neuroplasticity with certain behaviors.
So what do you do to keep your brain healthy?
In our experience the following 5-step approach outlines the best places to start both improving brain health and preserving brain function for the long term.
1. Get a cognitive evaluation in your 20’s.
While this might sound young, we recommend you take problems with memory and brain fog seriously and do a cognitive evaluation even if you are in your 20’s. Many of our patients complain of poor short term memory and brain fog. This can be due to a number of factors. One of the most common ones we see is mobile device addiction (9), meaning you are living less in the present moment and aren’t remembering what happened yesterday simply because you weren’t paying attention. Issues with memory and brain fog can also be due to dietary factors and imbalances in the digestive tract. For instance we know that both alcohol and sugar can each contribute to poor concentration. But to see where your brain stands, and whether there is truly a problem, or you’re just looking at your phone too much, we recommend using a scientifically validated neurocognitive assessment like the ones we use at Parsley Health. This helps establish a baseline – you may be sharper than you think and by establishing your cognitive baseline early you are able to then track any changes over time in a measurable way.
2. Meditate to improve emotional balance.
Research shows that meditation helps to shift your center of operation from your limbic or emotional center to your pre-frontal cortex, or thinking brain where your logic and rational abilities are centered. This leads to increased emotional regulation through cognitive control and subsequent improved decision making. (10)
3. Eat neuroplasticity stimulating foods like DHA and coffee.
Expert functional nutritionist Dana James recommends green tea and a well-designed smoothie including blueberries, cacao, spirulina and DHA, the omega-3 fatty acid that makes up a quarter of your brain fat, to enhance production of BDNF, or brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which promotes the growth and repair of new neurons. BDNF supports the survival of existing neurons, and encourages the growth and differentiation of new neurons and synapses.
In addition drinking one to two cups of coffee a day has been shown to slow cognitive decline over time, however there is no solid evidence that coffee definitively prevents dementia. (11)
4. Fix your digestion and support a healthy microbiome.
There is a growing understanding regarding the connection between the brain and the gut. In fact the enteric nervous system – the collection of nerves in the intestines – is often referred to as the “second brain.” This second brain is routinely exposed to factors inside the gut, such as food, bacteria and environmental toxins, that stimulate increased communication between this nervous system (part of the peripheral nervous system), it’s surrounding immune elements and the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). Today we know that the deterioration of gut wall integrity, also known as “leaky gut” or gut permeability, which results from the process of aging, an inflammatory diet heavy in sugar and refined carbs and overgrowth of bacteria in our resident gut microbiota due to antibiotic use, can impact brain health. It turns out that symptoms of depression may be due to both chronic inflammation triggered by eating the wrong foods, and the presence of certain bacteria and the chemicals they make. To improve this, reduce or eliminate the consumption of refined carbohydrates and added sugars, and avoid unnecessary antibiotics. (12, 13)
5. Lift weights.
Research shows that weight lifting at least twice weekly significantly decreases the age-related deterioration of white matter, the part of the brain that conducts impulses from neuron to neuron. With age, we all lose lean muscle mass unless we do something to combat that loss. Now we know that losing muscle mass reduces both blood flow to and stimulation of our brains that keep brain tissue young. (14)
At Parsley Health, brain health is central to our functional, whole-body approach to medicine. We are always studying exploring and integrating the state-of-the-art technologies in brain health and cognitive assessments. With our patients we go beyond the five steps above and commonly test for genetic factors such as MTHFR APOE and COMT which are gene variants that can affect brain health and dementia risk. We also assess toxin burden including neurotoxic heavy metals like mercury and lead, and we test for cortisol imbalances due to chronic stress because cortisol, if high over time, is also neurotoxic.
- Over the Hill at 24: Persistent Age-Related Cognitive-Motor Decline in Reaction Times in an Ecologically Valid Video Game Task Begins in Early Adulthood
- Is Parkinson Disease on the Rise?
- Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures
- Human Brain Statistics
- Is There a Way to Change Subconscious Patterns?
- Livingston R.B. (1966). “Brain mechanisms in conditioning and learning”. Neurosciences Research Program Bulletin. 4 (3): 349–354.
- Bennett EL, Diamond MC, Krech D, Rosenzweig MR (1964). “Chemical and Anatomical Plasticity of the Brain”. Science. 146: 610–619. PMID 14191699. doi:10.1126/science.146.3644.610.
- Rakic, P. (January 2002). “Neurogenesis in adult primate neocortex: an evaluation of the evidence”. Nature Reviews Neuroscience. 3 (1): 65–71. PMID 11823806. doi:10.1038/nrn700.
- Is your smartphone wrecking your memory?
- Calm and smart? A selective review of meditation effects on decision making
- Coffee and brain aging: http://healthyagingproject.org/2017/02/long-term-caffeine-consumption-protect-brain/
- The Brain-Gut Connection
- The gut-brain connection
- Weight lifting and brain aging: https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/10/21/lifting-weights-twice-a-week-may-aid-the-brain/?mcubz=1&_r=0