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A Multi-Pronged Approach to Brain Health

Larry McLeary

Try eating food with one chop stick.

It is possible, for certain types of food. But probably not the best approach.

Let’s now talk brain health.

Dr. Larry McCleary is a former acting Chief of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Denver Children’s Hospital, and author of the The Brain Trust Program (Perigee Trade, 2007). He agreed to help us answer an important, yet often neglected, question: Given That We Are Our Brains, How do We Nourish Them?

Alvaro: Dr. McCleary, Why did a former neurosurgeon such as yourself develop an interest in brain health public education?

Dr. McCleary: For two reasons … I am a Boomer and am trying to maximize my own brain health. Also, there is much exciting research documenting how we can be proactive in this regard. This information needs to be disseminated and I would like to help in this process.

And what is the single most important brain-related idea or concept that you would like every person in the planet to fully understand?

The most important take home message about brain health is that we now know that no matter what your brain status or age, there is much you can do to significantly improve brain function and slow brain aging. Based on emerging information, what is especially nice is the fact that unlike many things in life our brain health is largely under own control.

What are the most important elements to nourish our brains as we age?

I approach this question much like an athlete prepares for competition. They utilize a holistic approach. This is also what a healthy brain requires. It should not be surprising that “what is good for the body is good for the brain.” That is how our bodies and brains evolved.

Hence what I believe are valuable components of a well-rounded approach to brain health involve:

A) Appropriate nutrition.

The major fuel the brain consumes is glucose. The earliest sign of impending dementia and Alzheimer disease (AD) is a decrement in the ability of the brain to use glucose efficiently. Based on this observation, some neuroscientists are referring to AD as Type 3 diabetes because of the inability to appropriately use glucose in that disorder. This makes sense because people with diabetes have a four-fold increase in AD.

The brain is a fatty organ. The most important fats are those in the nerve cell membranes whose presence keeps them flexible. These are the long chain omega 3 fatty acid molecules found in fatty, cold-water fish and arachidonic acid (a long chain omega 6 fatty acid). These are both delicate fats and as such can oxidize easily (meaning they can become rancid).

Thus, we should include additional dietary components that provide free radical fighting activity to protect them against oxidation. Based on these observations, I recommend a diet containing fatty fish, veggies and salads, non-starchy fruits (like berries) – that are high in free radical fighting compounds – and nuts. Addition of specific nutritional supplements may be helpful for the elderly, those under chronic stress, in the context of medications that lower critical nutrient levels in the body, or when dietary quality varies.

B) Stimulating brain activity

To increase neuroplasticity (the continual ability of the brain to “rewire” itself) and neurogenesis (the formation of new nerve cells), brain stimulation is vital. All types count including school work, occupational endeavors, leisure activities and formal brain training. The key in any activity is to include novelty (to encourage thinking outside the box), challenge and variety.

C) Physical activity

Exercise delivers additional blood and oxygen to the brain. Yet, it does so much more. It actually causes alterations in the nerve cells. They produce more neurotrophins, which are compounds that increase the formation of new nerve cells and enhance their connectivity. They also make the neurons we have more resistant to the aging process. Cross train your brain by starting with a good aerobic program and mix in resistance (weight training) exercise and speed and agility components such as jumping rope, playing ping-pong, gymnastics and various balance drills.

D) Stress reduction

Chronic, unremitting stress kills neurons. This is especially detrimental to memory function. So include a component of stress reduction in your approach to optimal brain health and make sure to get plenty of sleep.

E) Be Aware of Side effects of medications

There are medications that lower the level of important brain nutrients in the body such as B vitamins and coenzyme Q10. Check with your doctor to screen for these. There are also many common medicines (many OTC) that have anti-cholinergic activities. These can impair the function of one of the most important memory neurotransmitters in the brain -acetylcholine.

Finally, what brain health-related information or practices would you suggest other doctors and health professionals pay more attention to, both for themselves and the patients they see?

They should counsel their patients on tips for brain health such as those listed above in much the same way they discuss cardiac risk factors and how to address them. I would like to see physicians encourage their patients to avoid high-fructose corn syrup because it has recently been shown to be associated with increased brain atrophy.

Dr. McCleary, many thanks for your great insights.

My pleasure!

————–

For more information

The Brain Trust Program (Perigee Trade, 2007).

Evolution and Brain Health, an article by Dr. McCleary.

Enjoy the weekend…always a good time to nourish our brains.

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  1. Martin says:

    Thank you, Sharp Brains and Dr. McCleary.

    I agree that we need much better information like this generally available. What to eat and what to avoid eating for optimal brain health, for instance — I’d never heard about high fructose corn syrup…

    Martin

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