Monday, 2 July 2012

5 Top Tips to Protect Your Brain

 5 Top Tips to Protect Your Brain

1. Take B vitamins

All vitamins help keep the body running like a well-oiled machine, but your brain, in particular, benefits from Bs. New research highlights the importance of B vitamins in protecting seniors from stroke and dementia, two main causes of disability in the elderly. Specifically, B vitamins can help quench homocysteine, an amino acid that damages blood vessels. In 2002, a study published in Stroke: Journal of the American Heart Association found people with moderately high levels of homocysteine had a more than fivefold increased risk of stroke and a threefold increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease compared to those with low levels of the substance in their blood.

Vitamin B3 (niacin) also has been linked to brain health. Researchers at the Chicago-based Rush Institute for Healthy Aging found in 2004 that seniors with flagging levels of niacin were more likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s than those with niacin to spare. Although researchers have yet to pinpoint what’s going on, they suspect that B vitamins protect and nurture dendritic growth, a key component of the nervous system and brain health. “You’ve got to get in the habit of taking B vitamins every day,” Weiss says.

2. Try ginkgo

Extracted from the ancient ginkgo tree, ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) is considered the best of all brain-boosting supplements on the shelf. Studies of people with Alzheimer’s disease show that ginkgo enhances blood flow to the brain and ameliorates memory recall. It also adds tone and spring to aging blood vessels. In addition, ginkgo is a potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant. “Ginkgo will be one of the most valuable herbs for the next 100 years,” Weiss says.

For minor memory loss associated with aging, take 40 to 60 mg of ginkgo biloba extract (GBE) three times a day. For Alzheimer’s disease, up each dose to 80 to 120 mg three times per day. Ginkgo is generally safe for long-term use; however, the extract does thin the blood and can clash with some medications, especially blood thinners. So if you take prescription drugs, consult with your doctor before tossing ginkgo into the mix and make sure not to take it before a surgery.

3. Watch inflammation

Inflammation comes to the rescue when the body is hurt or ill, but the immune system’s Dr. Jekyll can morph into Mr. Hyde if the inflammation switch gets stuck in the “on” position.

Chronic inflammation, whether from an irritated bowel, inflamed gums or autoimmune disease, weakens arteries in both the heart and the head. Making the arteries more vulnerable to rupture, the damage opens the doorway to heart attack and stroke. The key to prevention is keeping an eye on the early warning signs. “Inflammation is cumulative. It may end up in the blood vessels, but that’s not where it starts,” Weiss says. “If you have inflamed joints, gums or gastrointestinal tract, your whole body is loaded, and the immune system will hype up heart disease progression.”

The good news is you can combat inflammation naturally by bulking up on specific foods, herbs and supplements. Start with omega-3-rich fish. People who eat two servings a week of coldwater fatty fish, such as mackerel, wild salmon and tuna, cut their risk of heart attack, stroke and Alzheimer’s disease, according to dozens of scientific studies. If you aren’t a fish fan, consider taking fish oil supplements ( between 1,000 and 2,000 mg daily). Other supplements to help douse the fire include turmeric (400 to 600 mg three times per day) and ginger (500 to 1,000 mg twice per day).

If you’re still concerned about inflammation, ask your doctor to test your C-reactive protein levels (CRP for short). A blood marker for inflammation, levels of CRP creep up as inflammation heats up. Although the CRP test is not yet considered standard fare, its use is becoming more mainstream. Two studies in the January 2005 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine indicate CRP may be as important as cholesterol in establishing cardiovascular risk. The CRP test is most useful for people with a moderate heart disease risk whose cholesterol levels are seemingly normal. As more doctors subscribe to the importance of uncovering inflammation, CRP tests may rival cholesterol tests as a diagnostic tool.

Another test to consider is one that measures levels of white blood cells (WBC). After studying the link between high levels of WBC and heart disease in the 72,000 participants of the Women’s Health Initiative, authors of a study published in the March issue of Archives of Internal Medicine concluded that unusually high levels of WBCs may be useful for detecting heart disease in otherwise healthy-looking people. (Food allergies, especially to wheat, gluten and dairy, also create inflammation in the body over time; so does over reliance on nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and antibiotics.)

4. Exercise your brain

You know exercise ensures muscular brawn, but it’s easy to forget the brain’s need for heavy lifting. The importance of performing mental gymnastics was first foretold by a 2002 study published in JAMA. For the research on mental acuity and aging, scientists at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center recruited 801 Catholic nuns, priests and brothers from around the United States. All were at least 65 years old, and none had a clinical diagnosis of dementia. The seniors completed a survey designed to measure, among other things, how much time they devoted to seven different activities, ranging from watching television to playing card games. Over the next 4.5 years, the scientists periodically evaluated the seniors’ brainpower for signs of slippage. During the study, more than 111 participants were diagnosed with shades of Alzheimer’s. When researchers compared those struck by the disease with their activity level, they found that those who flexed their mental muscles the most were 47 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer’s than those who taxed their brains the least. Weiss wasn’t surprised by the results. “In the brain, there is a big, big difference between watching television and reading a book,” he says. “Your brain makes new neurons when you process information. I see lots of older folks who are readers stay sharp while those who watch TV melt into the couch.”

5. Get diabetes under control

If you have diabetes, you have extra incentive to pamper your brain. Diabetes puts people at a higher risk of dementia. Experts know that diabetes is damaging to blood vessels, but they are just beginning to understand the relationship to dementia. A groundbreaking study published last March in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease confirmed not only that the brain makes insulin but also that people who die from Alzheimer’s disease lack insulin in key areas of their brains. “Some people think of Alzheimer’s disease as diabetes of the brain,” Whitmer says. “More and more evidence shows that insulin plays a direct role in the neurodegeneration seen with Alzheimer’s.”

If there’s a final analysis to be made here, it might be that while eating right, exercising and taking vitamins and supplements might not be, as Weiss says, a rocket-science Rx for heart and brain health, it’s one each of us can follow with relatively little pain in exchange for considerable long-term gain.

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