Young Brains, Beware
What's every bit as provocative is how an idle brain may influence later disease. Just last summer, research published in the Journal of Neuroscience suggested that passive daydreaming is the mental equivalent of being a couch potato. This wandering is more like channel surfing than exercise, and it uses the same areas of the brain most hit later by Alzheimer's. Surely, this is different from the brain silently pondering new ideas, actively fantasizing, figuring out problems, or having quiet epiphanies. Or even the meditating brain in which no thoughts are allowed, just tranquillity. Though it's too early to write a prescription, keeping the wandering brain under control is at least good food for thought.
But brain exercise is not enough. The body must be in on the act, too. Physical exercise brings healthier DNA and nerve cells and in humans is known to reduce stress and depression. In lab studies of aging rodents, exercise actually stimulates the growth of new nerve cells and improves the ability to learn. In 2001, a large Canadian study brought support for this in humans when it found a clear-cut benefit of physical activity on the development of Alzheimer's, particularly so in women. Even three days of a regular walking program will do, though more is better.
What we put in our mouth matters, too. But as in all things diet, there are no certain answers. High-saturated-fat diets increase the chance of getting Alzheimer's. In contrast, fish oils are veritable brain foods. Almonds are, too, reinforced by a new study. Wine in moderation seems protective, though in excess is a well-known brain blitzer. And, of course, there are the antioxidants--the micronutrients that soak up the free radicals that are waste products of our oxygen-based metabolism. Free radicals have a hand in aging and in most degenerative diseases, including Alzheimer's.
Many vitamins work their magic as antioxidants. There is some evidence that the antioxidant vitamins E and C added to the trusty multivitamin cut the onset of Alzheimer's by more than 60 percent. Another vitamin, folic acid, beneficial to blood vessels and the nervous system, is low in most of our diets. A folate deficiency triggers dementia symptoms in those who have brains already peppered with amyloid plaque. However good your diet, it's hard to argue against a daily multivitamin. But vitamins should not be taken in lieu of a daily mix of five or more fruits and vegetables--regardless of what Atkins proponents and other low-carbniks say.
Head start. Framingham has done some heavy lifting in getting baby boomers ready for the threat of Alzheimer's. Age and genes weigh in for both heart and brain, but many of the modifiable heart risk factors also bear on the brain. Obesity and diabetes are brain risk factors. Blood pressure elevation is a big one that can lead to the ministrokes that cause so-called vascular dementia (without amyloid) and aggravate symptoms in those with amyloid-laden brains. High cholesterol ranks up there, too, and here statins bring great value. Some research even suggests that statins slow amyloid deposition and quiet down inflammation--one of the newest heart risk factors and one that also threatens the brain.