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.


  1. Martin on July 19, 2008 at 2:53

    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…


About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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