One hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease is the presence of beta amyloid plaques and tau tangles in the brain, which cause neurons (brain cells) to die. However, some people, whose brain autopsies revealed the presence of these plaques and tangles, had had no cognitive decline while they were alive, because they had no inflammation. Recent research has identified inflammation as a central contributor to Alzheimer’s disease. Neuroinflammation occurs in response to the plaque and tangles and rapidly accelerates the onset of dementia. So, the goal is to find ways to avoid neuroinflammation to keep the brain resilient.
What is the source of that inflammation? Aging is one of the biggest factors for chronic inflammation, but its origin can also be attributed to changes in the microbiome- the hundred trillion microbes in our gut. Helpful bacteria in our microbiome can be harmed by such things as antibiotics, aspirin, and ibuprofen; chlorinated water and environmental toxins, and what we eat. When food particles or other toxins break through the gut’s lining and stream through our bodies, the immune system fights against them, resulting in chronic inflammation.
Since a person with Alzheimer’s commonly does not show symptoms until it has been in the body for 15 to 20 years, early detection could result in preventing the disease from occurring. Lifestyle choices- how you live and exercise, and what you eat, can help fight against neuroinflammation and keep your brain healthy over time.
My Brain SENSE acronym, which represents lifestyle behaviors that impact brain health, includes four essential ways to fight dementia.
The first E refers to Exercise; research supports that exercise increases neurogenesis, the creation of new brain cells in the hippocampus, the area most impacted by Alzheimer’s because it involves storage of memories. When you exercise, enzymes that attack and chew up amyloid are produced. And exercise also has been shown to reduce neuroinflammation. The recommendation is to get at least 8,000 – 10,000 steps daily, and definitely do not be sedentary!
The N in Brain SENSE stands for Nutrition. David Perlmutter, M.D., (http://www.drperlmutter.com/) is the author of Grain Brain. He warns that eating too much sugar and simple carbohydrates and too little fiber and healthy fat can harm your gut bacteria. Rudolph Tanzi, Ph.D. (http://madrc.mgh.harvard.edu/rudolph-e-tanzi-phd), one of the world’s leading Alzheimer’s researchers, explains that your microbiome is in constant communication with your brain and regulates neuroinflammation. Everything we eat either nurtures or damages the microbiome.
The second S in Brain SENSE stands for Sleep. When you are in deep, slow-wave sleep, your brain produces less amyloid beta protein. During deep sleep, your brain also cleans out amyloid produced during the day, along with other toxins that could contribute to inflammation. Unfortunately, as people age, their ability to reach deep sleep declines, and those with Alzheimer’s especially find it difficult to sleep. Also, with aging, the rate of clearance of amyloid beta declines, so the brain is left with more of this. What is not yet known is whether the amyloid deposits interfere with sleep, or whether the lack of quality sleep promotes the production of amyloid. Ideally you should sleep at least seven to eight hours per night, or your brain may not have a chance to clean itself.
The last E in Brain SENSE refers to Education, or stimulating your brain with new and complex ideas. Leaning helps increase the number of neural connections in your brain, building what is referred to as cognitive reserve. These allow for the loss of more neurons before clinical symptoms of Alzheimer’s become evident. Playing games like bridge and Sudoku help keep working memory sharp, and learning to play a musical instrument or to speak a foreign language is also helpful. And no one has an excuse not to try doing tasks with their non-dominant hand, which is also challenging for your brain!