04/11/2012 04:25 pm ET Updated Jun 11, 2012

Why 'Brain Support' Should Be on Your 'To Do' List

I was writing down my "to do" list yesterday. Here is what I have so far:

  1. Pay daughter's college tuition bill
  2. Make dentist appointment.
  3. Visit Dad before he forgets who I am.

The last one has been on the list for several weeks now. Like so many in the squished-like-a-bug generation, I have a child in college and a father with dementia. In 10 years when the baby boomers hit their 70s, there will be an epidemic of people sliding the downward spiral into cognitive decline. Up to 50 percent of octogenarians have notable brain impairment. My father is 80, but I am one of the lucky ones.

Though I am procrastinating the task of visiting my dad, through aggressive nutrition intervention we have pushed back the dementia timetable by almost 20 years. Around 1995, I spotted the first signs of serious trouble. My father is epileptic so I have long kept a tight eye on his health. Traditionally, that job would have fallen to my mom but my parents separated when I was 7. As a typical oldest child of divorce, I hopped right in to fill the void. (And yes, I have had years of therapy.)

When I noticed my father was having word-finding issues, I bullied him into consulting with a neurologist. Normally, I abhor bullying and believe people should do things in their own time and in their own way but by definition, that does not happen with cognitive issues. Besides, one of my father's favorite things to do was to reduce or stop his anti-seizure medicine because he did not like taking it.

His medicine did need to be adjusted. More significantly, in running extensive tests the neurologist saw what she thought, confidentially and off the record, were early indicators of vascular dementia. She did not volunteer that information, but told me when pressed. That is as good as it gets for early dementia diagnosis. By the time a new doctor officially confirmed cognitive issues just a few months ago, the check-out person at the WaWa could have told you what was wrong. Unless the brain deterioration is so advanced that it can be seen on an MRI (which my father predictably refused to get), there is no formal diagnosis.

In fact, what the new neurologist told my father and his wife is that he was suffering from anxiety. You too, would be anxious if you could not consistently remember who is in your family or how you got that big bruise on your chest. He said the black and blue mark was from gardening, but it was January and snowing so that answer was suspect. Then dad had an enormous temper tantrum because he did not like being treated like he was stupid. An antidepressant was prescribed and he was shuttled out of the office. Suspicions concerning possible dementia were written on his chart and sent to his internist.

Though my father is slipping now, he has done well for almost 20 years despite major health challenges because of targeted nutrition therapy aimed at his brain. The minute there were symptoms, I loaded him up with a super multiple vitamin/mineral, fish oil, a strong choline enhancer and phosphatidyl serine supplement. Then to increase cerebral blood flow, I threw in some vinpocetine, a periwinkle plant derivative that may help age related memory impairment.

How do I know this program helped my father's cognition?

  1. Once he started the program and was doing better, dad admitted the word finding issues had become a problem. The improvement after adding the supplements was so significant that he took the expensive regimen religiously.
  2. A gap in the program occurred when he remarried and his new wife thought all these supplements were a bit over the top. After three months, she called to have the program reinstituted immediately.
  3. An old brain scan found scar tissue and vascular changes, both predictors of serious problems that have been pushed back a precious few decades.

My father's story represents only empirical data, but the scientific evidence for this type of approach is mounting. A January 2012 study published in the journal Neurology compared cognitive performance and brain volume with levels of more than thirty nutrients in older adults. Those with high blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins B, C, D and E did better on cognitive tests and had less brain atrophy than participants with lower levels of these nutrients.

There are other studies looking at how choline heightens performance, or phosphatidyl serine helps cognitive decline in the elderly. The program I used for my dad may not be the right one for you but the time to put your cognitive support program in place, all you baby boomers, is now.

The foundation for a brain boost program is always a good diet with tons of vegetables and fruits, exercise and the maintenance of an ideal weight. Even if I could have gotten my father to do these practical things (and I could not), I still would have added the extra supplement support for insurance against modern living and aging. As a tail-end baby boomer myself, I have been taking supplements to support brain function since I was 40, on top of a healthy lifestyle. If I make it to 80, I want to have as many of my marbles as possible. Between medical problems, medications, stress, pollution and all the rest of what happens to the average person who has been on earth for 50 or more years, living a healthy life is often not enough.

For more by Kelly Dorfman, click here.

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