I recently got a membership offer from AARP congratulating me for reaching the magical age when I am officially an elderly in their eyes! Fortunately, I don’t share their enthusiasm or pessimism depending on your point of view.
Aging can be a scary time for many people. Growing up in India, I rarely saw people talk about Alzheimer’s, dementia or brain health in general. While there is a strong correlation to how long one lives (the longer you live more likely to have dementia), there are other factors in play as well. For physical fitness, it is easy to go to gym and exercise; I think mental fitness is a bit more complicated and not much known. Let’s start with dementia and cardiovascular disease as they are intertwined problems.
With increased age comes increased health problems such as dementia and other debilitating cognitive conditions. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), nearly 50 million people worldwide have dementia1. Dementia is defined by the Alzheimer’s Association as a condition that decreases mental function in such a way that daily activities are impaired. It also states the most common type of dementia is Alzheimer’s Disease. It must be noted that even though aging is a natural process, development of dementia is not. Dementia is a broad term that encompasses several conditions. It can range in severity but exhibits itself by signs such as short-term memory loss or impaired communication skills. Simply put, it is caused by damage to the brain which in turn impairs mental function. The specific area of the brain affected will determine the sign/symptom demonstrated. At this time there is no cure for the advanced stages of dementia, but research is showing ways of prevention.
Cardiovascular disease is also a broad grouping of several conditions affecting the heart, arteries, and veins. As with most conditions, this disease is not restricted to just elderly individuals but does appear to increase with age. For the brain to function properly adequate blood must be supplied from the heart by way of the blood vessels. With such a strong connection, research has linked cardiovascular health to many aspects of dementia and other cognitive diseases2,3.
Hypertension and heart failure are just two conditions associated with cardiovascular disease that may have a strong link to dementia. Hypertension is experienced when blood pressure rises too high due to various factors. High sodium intake as well as many fat deposits on the artery walls can be possible causes. This increased pressure requires greater work to be done by the heart and possibly decreased blood flow to the brain. The overall decrease in blood flow to the brain can aid in brain damage and possibly contribute to dementia. The vessels inside the brain are fragile, and if this added stress to them remains, a stroke is possible. Heart failure can also follow if the heart is continually required to overwork.
What is the right Diet to prevent these?
In the prevention of dementia, nutrition obviously plays a large role but, is one diet better that another? A few diets seem to shine in this area- the Mediterranean Diet, DASH Diet, and MIND Diet (see Box for details). In multiple studies, the Mediterranean Diet is said to prevent cognitive impairment as well as demonstrate possible improvement4. This diet relies heavily on plant-based foods and lean proteins such as fish and poultry while limiting red meat and refined foods. Other studies have shown the DASH and MIND diet to act in similar ways5. The DASH diet is designed to lower blood pressure by reducing sodium intake within the diet. Since both the Mediterranean and DASH diets promote lean proteins and plant-based foods, scientists have discovered that combining the two diets to form the MIND Diet yields quite positive outcomes6. Decreases of cognitive function were lessened as well as the chance of developing Alzheimer’s Disease when following this diet.
What is the MIND Diet?
As stated, the MIND diet takes the components of both the DASH Diet and the Mediterranean Diet to form a diet low in sodium, saturated fats yet high in produce. This diet clearly states its intentions in its name: Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurological Delay. This diet promotes foods high in Omega 3 fatty acids and phytochemicals found within colorful produce7,8. The dark-colored fruits and vegetables such as blueberries, cherries, strawberries, and raspberries contain a photochemical called anthocyanin. This chemical provides not only the color of the fruit but much more. This chemical is shown to preserve cognitive function9. One such mechanism of anthocyanins is to reduce inflammation in the brain thus possibly aiding in the prevention or progression of dementia10. Other theories suggest that this chemical changes harmful chemicals promoting dementia to non-harmful forms11.
Scientists are finding this dietary plan to be beneficial for not only people with dementia but those desiring better health overall.
Move it, move it, move it!
Another very important aspect of brain health, as well as cardiovascular health, is physical fitness. Physical activity is shown to reduce and slow the neurological damage for those individuals with dementia12,13. Studies demonstrate that exercise has multi-faceted benefits such as increased strength, mobility, balance, and endurance for patients. These benefits can be seen with exercise performed for sixty minutes for two to three days per week14. It must be noted that people suffering from dementia may need extra assistance when exercising and must perform at a safe level of intensity and endurance.
Life after fifty is like the third and final act of the play. Taking steps to prevent this disease or slow the progression is within reach and would ensure a healthy and mindful journey. You can kill two birds with one stone by seeking cardiovascular fitness through diets such as the Mediterranean Diet or the DASH diet. You can also combine the two diets to form the MIND diet focusing on brain-healthy foods. Without going too much into supplements, cardiovascular exercise 3-5 times a week trumps every cognitive supplement on the shelf.
These suggestions may help you to age well. Cheers to that with a glass of red wine!