For Your Brain’s Health: Stop Doing These Things Now

Save your money; save your brain

Posted Aug 17, 2011

There is still hope for your brain; it's not too late.  Indeed, it's never too late to slow brain aging. Why? Because your brain ages a little bit every day, therefore, it's possible to slow that process by doing something good for it every day.  Or, as I wish to emphasize here: NOT doing things that are bad for it, every day.

Your lifestyle determines the health of your brain.  This is probably most evident when one considers the ultimate failure in brain aging - Alzheimer's disease. During the past few years neuroscientists have begun to realize that Alzheimer's disease is mostly a lifestyle disorder.  Some unlucky people do inherit genes that might place them at increased risk of getting this devastating disease, but for the vast majority of us our risk depends upon what chemicals and foods our brain's experienced during our lives.

Last month I attended an international meeting of scientists who study Alzheimer's disease.  Unlike past years, there are very few exciting discoveries to report. In the past, news reports from this meeting sometimes induced millions of people to purchase and consume expensive vitamins and herbs.  The knowledge gained since then has demonstrated that the initial excitement regarding these vitamins and supplements far exceeded the actual benefits obtained by the patients. 

So what does NOT help? Vitamins A, E & C; Omega-3 supplements and DHA. It was once believed that taking these vitamins and supplements might slow the processes underlying brain aging. Most of this evidence was obtained by testing these chemicals in genetically modified mice that reproduce some aspects of Alzheimer's disease.  In contrast, epidemiological studies obtained by observing thousands of humans over many years have not found such strong evidence supporting their use as a preventative for Alzheimer's disease. Although they might offer some very modest health benefits to a few people, the most recent evidence indicates that they are not significantly helpful for the brain. In contrast, obtaining these substances from their natural dietary sources, such as fish, fruits and vegetables might actually offer real benefits for your brain; this is most likely due to the complex blend of chemicals that are in these foods.  What does all of this mean? A single good dietary habit is not enough to provide protection for your brain!  [See references below]

Thus, forget about expensive supplements and just eat small amounts of lots of different foods: with two exceptions - avoid french fries and almost anything from a cow or pig. Recently published studies examined the long term consequences of specific dietary items upon obesity and its relationship to brain aging and the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease.  French fries and red meats often topped the list of foods to avoid if you want your brain and body to age slowly and avoid Alzheimer's disease.  Obviously, suggesting that you should not eat these popular foods and that you should not purchase expensive dietary supplements goes against everything that you've heard from the people who sell these products. My mantra: save your money and save your brain.

© Gary L. Wenk, Ph.D. Author of Your Brain on Food (Oxford University Press, 2010)

Re: The connection between red meats, french fries, obesity and AD

Mozaffarian et al., N Engl J Med 2011;364:2392-404.

Kanoski & Davidson, Physiol & Behav 2011; 103:59-68.

Bayer-Carter et al., Arch Neurol 2011;68:743-752.

From Presentations at the 2011 Alzheimer's Association International Conference, July 16-21, Paris, France. 

Gustafson et al., Univ of Gothenberg. Palmitic acid found in dairy and red meats increase dementia risk. 

Devore et al., Brigham and Womens Hospital. 1) Alpha and beta carotene had no impact upon cognitive decline. 2) A study of over 16,000 women found no statistical relationship between consumption of vitamin C, beta carotene or flavonoids with reduced dementia risk.  However, a greater intake of flavonoids from berries was related to a slower decline in cognitive status.

Barberger-Gateau et al., INSERM, Bordeaux, France. Diets characterized by high consumption of fruits, legumes, vegetables, cereals, fish and olive oil reduce the risk of dementia.  Meat and dairy products were associated with a higher risk.

Buee-Scherrer et al., INSERM, Lille, France. Life style factors such as diet and exercise influence the onset of dementia and the risk of AD. 

Piovezan, R. Federal Univ of Sao Paulo, Brazil. Current data is insufficient to state that the consumption of one food, specific nutrient or nutritional supplement can lower the risk of AD.

Lombardo et al., Boston Univ School of Medicine. A combination of nutrients is more effective than any single class of nutrients.

Cherbuin, N. Australian National Univ, Canberra, Australia.  High daily caloric intake was significantly associated with increased cognitive decline with aging and increased risk of AD.