Earlier this week, the U.S. government announced that it was going to provide $33.2 million, the largest grant of its kind in history, to support the development of a pharmaceutical approach to prevent Alzheimer's disease in healthy people. No doubt if such a drug finds scientific validation it would be a blockbuster beyond measure.
Surprisingly, despite all the supportive rhetoric about why such a drug is so desperately needed, we already have the ability to dramatically reduce the incidence of this disease.
Just last month, a study published in the journal The Lancet sounded a long-dormant alarm. They reported that in diabetics having the highest level of various diabetes associated factors, things like vascular issues or leg ulcers, the risk of becoming demented was increased an astounding 37 fold.
There is no meaningful treatment for dementia, including Alzheimer's disease, which now affects 5.4 million Americans. And in parallel with rising rates of diabetes, the number of Alzheimer's patients in the U.S. is predicted to double by the year 2030.
But diabetes, now affecting some 26 million Americans, is avoidable. Rarely, Type 2 diabetes develops without any readily identifiable predisposing factor. But in the great majority of cases it is brought on by lifestyle activities, including, and clearly most importantly, dietary choices. This means that this disease, so strongly correlated with risk for dementia, is generally a choice.
Research now clearly shows a direct correlation of average blood sugar levels and the rate at which the hippocampus, the brain's memory center, undergoes atrophy or shrinkage. And make no mistake about it, while some may argue the point about other anatomical issues, when it comes to your hippocampus, size absolutely matters. As your hippocampus shrinks, memory fails in lock step.
Even slight elevations of blood sugar, well below the range where diabetes becomes a concern, similarly and significantly predict the future risk for developing dementia as was described last month in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine.
But the empowering part of the story is that you can make changes, today, to dramatically reduce your risk for diabetes and as a welcomed consequence, reduce your risk for dementia, a disease with no meaningful remedy now or in the foreseeable future.
As a practicing neurologist, I place central importance in applying current science to the notion of disease prevention. And here are the empowering action points to help preserve your brain health and function:
• Reduce your carbohydrate consumption immediately. Shoot for a total of no more than 80 grams of carbs in your daily diet. This means favoring vegetables that grow above ground like kale, broccoli, spinach, and cauliflower as opposed to those that store carbohydrate in the form of starch like potatoes and beets. It means limiting fruit consumption and being especially vigilant with things like fruit juice. A single 12 ounce glass of orange juice contains a full 36 grams of sugar. That's about 9 teaspoons -- the same as a can of soda.
• Eat more fat. Increase your consumption of healthful fats like extra virgin olive oil, avocado, grass-fed beef, wild fish, coconut oil, nuts and seeds. At the same time, keep in mind that modified fats like hydrogenated or trans fats are the worst choices for brain health. Cooking oils like corn oil and soy oil that have been processed to stay on the grocery store shelf for months or even years have no place in a brain healthy program.
• Get at least 20 minutes of aerobic exercise each day. Aerobic exercise actually activates the DNA that turns on the growth of the hippocampus, giving you a second chance at not only preserving, but actually enhancing memory function.
• Add a nutritional supplement providing approximately 1,000 mg of the omega-3 DHA to your daily supplements. Like aerobics, DHA also activates the gene pathway that enhances growth of new brain cells where you need them most -- in the memory center.
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