As we age, one of the most common concerns for all of us is loss of cognitive function and the risk of dementia. In the last few years it has been found that there are many ways to reduce that risk, including dietary practices and a bevy of new supplements including magnesium threonate, CDP choline, PQQ and lions mane mushroom.
I have previously written a blog post about diet’s impact on prevention and reversing of dementia (read Preventing Dementia). Now a new study from the University of Chicago has confirmed many of these ideas. The study’s authors are calling the best preventive diet for maintaining a healthy brain the MIND diet - a combination of Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet for hypertension.
The MIND diet includes:
3 servings of whole grains (avoid gluten if sensitive but whole grains are an important food)
- 2 vegetables per day
1 glass of red wine
nuts as snacks
beans every other day
berries twice weekly
poultry twice weekly
fish once weekly
People who adhere strictly to these suggestions have a 53% lowered risk for Alzheimer’s disease (these suggestions seem easy to follow and I know many of my patients already do better than this).
In addition to dietary patterns, individual nutrients such as flavanoids in fruits and cocoa have shown benefits in preventing dementia. Higher intake of blueberries and strawberries in a study of 16,000 nurses over several decades was found to significantly reduce cognitive decline. Studies show EPA and DHA, omega 3 fatty acids mostly found in cold-water fish, can also reduce the risk of dementia. Genetics also play a role in what nutrients can make a difference. For example, people with high homocysteine levels from MTHFR mutations (this can be measured in blood tests) will reduce their risk of dementia by taking folate, B12 and B6, whereas others might not see benefit.
There are several supplements that have also shown promise in preventing cognitive decline. Some of them are included in a supplement we use in the office called Wellness Brain. One is something few people have heard of-a mushroom called lion’s mane (hericium erinaceus). The active compounds in this mushroom, hericenones have been found to stimulate Nerve Growth Factor, a protein that is needed for nerve cell growth and repair. NGF decreases beta-amyloid in animal models of Alzheimer’s disease leading to reversal of the damage found in this life-changing disease. In addition, hericenones have been found to reduce cell death in brain cells. Lion’s mane mushrooms also contain DLPE that protects brain cells from oxidative damage. In a 2009 study of 30 people with dementia, those given lion’s mane showed significant improvement in a double-blind study.
Another nutrient in this formula that can be of great value in preventing or treating memory loss is CDP choline or citicholine. It appears to work by increasing dopamine receptors in the brain. In rats with an Alzheimer like disorder, citicholine prevents nerve damage and reduces the number of dying cells. In Japan and Europe, citicholine is approved for use in head trauma, strokes and dementia - improving clinical outcomes and lowering death rates. Citicholine increases the amount of choline available for synthesizing the neurotransmitter acetylcholine as well as rebuilding cell membranes and restoring mitochondrial function in neurons. It prevents excess inflammation in the brain by inhibiting release of free fatty acids and preventing breakdown of the blood brain barrier. The many facets of citicholine’s effects make it a significant factor in maintaining a healthy brain.
Other newer nutrients that help keep the brain healthy include PQQ - a novel vitamin like compound found in plants such as parsley, green peppers, kiwi, papaya and tofu that acts as a powerful antioxidant and stimulates mitochondrial biogenesis. This impacts brain function since aging and diseases such as Parkinson and Alzheimer’s have mitochondrial disorders as a part of their pathology. PQQ also reduces inflammatory chemicals such as IL-6 and CRP that damage vascular walls and contribute to brain inflammation. In addition, it prevents neurotoxicity from toxins such as mercury and glutamate.
One other nutrient that has become an essential in reversing cognitive decline is magnesium. Magnesium is the fourth most prevalent mineral in the body and has a wide array of functions and is utilized in over 300 enzymes. I have been using magnesium treatments for asthma, migraine, fatigue and muscular problems for years, but a new form of magnesium, researched at MIT, is now available that promises dramatic benefits for the brain. Magnesium threonate (Opti-Mag) is the only form of magnesium that readily crosses the blood brain barrier, helping symptoms like anxiety, sleep disturbance and memory issues.
Magnesium threonate improves the plasticity of the hippocampus, the center of emotional memories, often damaged by excess cortisol and stress (it has been shown to help in recovery from PTSD). Improved plasticity is key to maintaining neuronal connections throughout the brain, resulting in improved memory, learning and cognition. Magnesium acts by controlling ion channels, which affect the electrical signals moving from neuron to neuron. In animal studies, magnesium threonate also was shown to protect synapses, memory and learning in diabetic rats prone to Alzheimer’s like dementia. It was also found to help clear toxic beta-amyloid from the brain. In human studies, magnesium threonate was found to increase brain reaction speed, working memory, and episodic memory and to lower markers of brain age.
With these promising new natural therapies, as well as the findings about diet, sleep and exercise, we can be more confident in maintaining a healthy brain as we age. With our increasingly polluted environment and food sources and greater societal and personal stress levels, protecting the brain requires good self care, healthy choices and judicious use of appropriate nutritional supplements - a worthwhile undertaking.