Keep Your Mind Sharp And Keep Dementia At Bay!
Gill Livingston, a professor of psychiatry at University College London, is an expert on brain health and knows about the concerns older adults have over developing dementia. And, like other seniors, Gill, 63, makes sure she protects her brain.
Livingston said she lifts weights, tries to walk 10,000 steps a day, drinks moderately, and watches her blood pressure. Livingston also discovered she had hearing loss after getting tested, and now she uses hearing aids.
“There is anecdotal evidence that people over 50 are most likely to worry about dementia and start to lose their memory,” Gill told Barron’s. “It’s financial, but it’s also very personal.”
Maintaining brain function benefits not only older adults physically but financially as well. For one, staying healthy means delaying or avoiding a stay in a nursing home, which can take a good portion of a person’s retirement savings.
Since some mental slowing comes along with aging, William Bernstein, a former neurologist turned financial author and money manager, recommends older adults simplify their finances and talk with their adult children so that they can handle the finances should the need arise.
“There’s a good chance you won’t remain cognitively intact, and you should make provisions for that,” Bernstein told Barron’s.
Health experts say that taking as many steps as possible to keep a healthy brain is of utmost importance since there is nothing that protects against dementia. A healthy brain “is everything,” according to Denise Park, a cognitive neuroscientist who runs the Park Aging Brain Laboratory at the University of Texas at Dallas. Like other seniors, Park, 71, wants to keep her brain sharp.
“Even when I wait in line, I pull out my phone and play computer games,” Park told Barron’s. “I never have an idle moment.”
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle also goes a long way in staving off dementia. For example, one study found that fully addressing 12 modifiable risk factors could possibly prevent or delay up to 40 percent of dementia cases. The risk factors include lifestyle activities, such as smoking, physical inactivity, and drinking.
The 2020 Lancet Commission report also noted that managing chronic health conditions, such as hypertension, is another way of protecting the brain. According to the report, middle-aged people who have systolic blood pressure (the top number that measures the pressure in the arteries when your heart beats) greater than 130 are 60 percent more likely to develop dementia.
Park says that high blood pressure can cause tears in the white matter of the brain over time. “If you have enough of those tears, you’ll have trouble transmitting signals to the cerebral cortex,” she said.
Ultra-processed Foods Can Affect Brain Health
Foods play a major role in brain health, which is why health experts encourage older adults to change any bad eating habits and eliminate junk food.
One reason is due to studies showing unhealthy diets, particularly those that include ultra-processed foods, can worsen age-related cognitive decline. Ultra-processed foods are foods that have been dramatically altered from their original form.
Ultra-processed foods such as packaged cookies, chips, frozen meals, and fast food tend to be lower in nutrients and fiber and higher in sugar, fat, and salt. Surprisingly, some foods sound “healthy” but aren’t, based on the list of ingredients. For example, flavored yogurt, protein bars, and breakfast cereals may be labeled “organic” or “natural,” but some are actually ultra-processed foods.
Since manufacturers rarely state their food processing methods, nutritionists say the best way to identify ultra-processed foods is to look at the ingredients list.
There are two types of ingredients that classify ultra-processed foods:
- • Industrial food substances. These include processed versions of protein and fiber, such as whey powder or inulin (a prebiotic), maltodextrin, fructose or glucose syrups, and hydrogenated oils.
• Cosmetic additives. These are ingredients that improve the texture, taste, or color of foods. Examples of cosmetic additives include stevia, a non-caloric sweetener; flavor enhancers like yeast extract and MSG; thickeners; and emulsifiers that modify a food’s texture.
Some popular, traditional foods are considered “healthy” but are ultra-processed because they have industrial food substances and cosmetic additives. Among these foods are:
Breakfast cereals. Many cereals and breakfast drinks contain maltodextrins, processed proteins and fibers, and colors. Oatmeal, however, is one of the most healthiest breakfasts because it only contains oats.
Protein and muesli bars and balls. Despite being marketed as healthy and filling, these foods can contain processed fiber and proteins, inverted sugars (sugars modified through an industrial process), and non-caloric sweeteners.
Plant-based ‘milk.’ While some soy milk only contains water, soybeans, oil, and salt, other plant-based milk has emulsifiers, vegetable gums, and flavors.
Bread. Plastic-wrapped, sliced, and cheaper bread have emulsifiers, modified starches (starches altered through industrial methods), and vegetable gums. However, fresh bakery bread is seldom ultra-processed.
Yogurts. Flavored yogurts sometimes have additives, such as thickeners, non-caloric sweeteners, or flavors. Choose plain yogurts instead.
Meal bases and sauces. Pre-prepared pasta and stir-fry sauces usually contain thickeners, flavor enhancers, and colors. But canned ingredients like tomatoes, vegetables, garlic, and herbs used for homemade sauces are minimally processed.
Processed meats. Packaged meats used for cold cuts have emulsifiers, modified starches, thickeners, and added fibers. Cold roast meats or chicken are healthier alternatives.
Margarine. Margarine is a substitute for butter, a dairy product made from proteins and fats found in milk and cream. Some margarine and non-dairy spreads are considered ultra-processed foods because they are made by hydrogenating vegetable oils and contain emulsifiers and colors.
According to Sara N. Burke, associate professor of Neurobiology and Cognitive Aging at the University of Florida, ultra-processed foods may influence brain health through the “gut-brain axis,” which is the two-way communication between the gut and the brain.
“Not only does the gut microbiome help with digestion, but it also influences the immune system while producing hormones and neurotransmitters that are critical for brain function,” Burke wrote in an article for The Conversation.
For example, studies show that ultra-processed foods can alter the type and abundance of gut microorganisms with more harmful effects. Conversely, studies have found that the healthy foods found in plant-based, low-fat diets, like Mediterranean and keto diets, change the composition of microorganisms in the gut in beneficial ways.
The popular Mediterranean diet, hailed by nutritionists worldwide as one of the healthiest diets today, consists of plant-based foods and healthy fats like olive oil, seeds, and nuts. The Keto diet is high in fat and low in carbohydrates, with the primary fiber source being from vegetables. Both diets minimize or eliminate the consumption of sugar.
“Our research and the work of others show that both diets can reverse some of these changes and improve cognitive function—possibly by reducing harmful inflammation,” Burke wrote.