In the 21st century, virtually everyone is aware of the benefits of a healthy lifestyle and maintaining an ideal bodyweight. Most people try to maintain an ideal weight for cosmetic reasons, others for health reasons, and others because they want to live longer to be available for their family and their friends. If you are a health conscious person, then once a year your primary care physician remind you are the benefits of optimum weight on your blood pressure, cholesterol count, blood sugar, and a variety of other “numbers.” What your doctor is probably not telling you is that being overweight is also wreaking havoc on your brain.
It appears that as a person’s weight rises towards obesity, brain size goes in the opposite direction. Numerous neurological studies have shown, for reasons unknown, there is a connection between being overweight and smaller brain size, brain shrinkage, and corresponding loss of brain functioning. A study done at UCLA showed that compared to people of normal body weight, overweight people have 8% less brain tissue than their peers of normal weight. This is not an insignificant difference and overweight people are at considerably higher risk for all brain diseases, including Alzheimer’s and dementia. People who were merely overweight had brains that looked 8 years older than normal, and people in the obese category range had brains that looked 16 years older. Researchers believe that these differences are not merely cosmetic. Another long term study done in Northern California of 6,500 people found that those who were overweight in their 40s experienced a far more rapid decline in brain functioning over the next few decades, and were much more likely to die of dementia in their 70s. While brain atrophy is a normal part of aging, studies indicate that being overweight accelerates the process tremendously.
Scientists are not sure why being too fat would affect the brain this way, but they have some ideas. A study done in 2010 by the National Academy of Sciences identified a possible genetic link. The gene, which they called FTO, appears to play a role in both obesity and brain functioning. They also concluded that genes are not necessarily the whole story. The gene may be affecting the brain through already well-known problems that being overweight causes, such as sleep apnea, which can lead to the brain being starved for oxygen during sleep. Other diseases associated with obesity such as hypertension, heart disease, and diabetes, cause immediate problems for many starting in their 40s, but also drastically increase the likelihood of developing dementia by your 70s.
Whatever is leading to the increases in incidence of dementia, it is now at epidemic proportions. By the year 2050, the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease is expected to quadruple, and 43% of those with the disease will need a high level of care, such as a nursing home. Part of the reason for these increased numbers is due to the fact that more of us will be living longer, but certainly maintaining optimal health in the early and middle adult years couldn’t hurt any of us. An alarming thing about the statistics is these apply only to Alzheimer’s disease, and don’t include other forms of dementia.
While there are a number of things that can be done to maintain brain health, by far the most important thing is to maintain normal body weight through a wellness program that includes proper diet, exercise, and healthy ways to manage stress. Traditional dieting is not enough. Most people when trying to lose weight deprived themselves of calories and pay little attention to nutrients, many of which are necessary for brain functioning and brain health. They also tend to look at bodyweight in terms of what shows up on a bathroom scale. Yes, the scale indicates total body weight loss, but recent studies show that only about 5% of people succeed with weight loss programs that do not include a comprehensive wellness program.
Here are some things to consider when making those lifestyle changes that will maintain your brain’s optimal health:
⦁ Food consumption-While less calories has been proven over and over in studies of brain health and longevity as being of critical importance, do not deprive yourself of proper nutrition. Diet should be well balanced and include enough quality protein in healthy fats to maintain brain functioning. Many will balk at the idea of fats in the diet, but proper consumption of healthy sources of fats through things like olive oil, coconut oil, and nuts and seeds are required to keep your brain functioning well. These can be high in calories, so adjust your total calorie consumption to compensate. Avoid salted seeds and nuts, consuming them in their raw state.
⦁ Cut back on sugar-Keep in mind that sugar also includes corn syrup and fructose. A diet that is top heavy in fruits and fruit juices can be a source of hidden sugars. Too much sugar has been shown consistently in research studies to create “brain fog,” and an accumulation of this over the years leads to the long-term problems discussed in this article.
⦁ Increase your consumption of vegetables-The typical person trying to “clean up their diet” tends to gravitate towards fruits rather than vegetables because they are easier to consume. You can simply grab an apple and eat it, whereas if you are consuming raw vegetables you may have to peel, slice, or make some other kind of concerted effort. While raw vegetables are best, increasing your amounts of cooked vegetables is a good idea as well.
⦁ Eliminate or cut back drastically on alcohol-Alcohol, or any substance that slows down brain functioning to any noticeable degree can be damaging to the brain. Obviously, an occasional use, or even overuse, of alcohol won’t have long-term impact, but keep in mind that the once a week “mild buzz” that you’ve been getting for the last few years may have an impact on brain functioning down the road.
⦁ Consider nutritional supplements-Omega-3 fish oils are the number one improvement that people should be making. Fish oil is easy to consume in tablet form, is a source of healthy fats which creates that “good cholesterol” that your primary care physician is always talking about. It also has been shown in a variety of research studies to improve levels of depression, mood regulation, and overall brain functioning. Vitamin D3 is also a must. Most of us spend far too much time indoors as opposed to our grandparents. Vitamin D3 is deficient in most people in developed nations. Like fish oils, vitamin D3 is easy to consume in tablet form, and plays an important role in neurological functioning.
⦁ Increase your consumption of water-Most of us mindlessly sip something throughout our day-coffee, tea, or soft drinks. Replacing these drinks with water is a great idea and a simple thing to introduce into your wellness program. Dehydration is a major cause of brain fog and the brief periods of emotional confusion that most of us try to resolve with a quick cup of coffee. While coffee works, water is equally good in the short run, and far better over the long haul.
⦁ Improve your sleep-Sleep is one of the most important things for overall physical and emotional wellness. Most people drastically under estimate the amount of sleep that they need. Just because you can “get by” on six hours doesn’t mean that you should. Try going to bed in the evening when you are tired, rather than pushing yourself to stay up a little longer to watch that TV show you’ve been waiting for. TiVo that sucker and go to bed. You’ll probably find an improvement in how you feel and function within a few days.
⦁ Exercise-Yeah, you knew I was going to get around this one. Any kind of exercise is preferable to none, but choose something that you enjoy and will stick with consistently. If you can, find something that you do regularly outdoors in the fresh air. If exercise has never been your thing, then take small steps like parking your car farther away from your destination, use the stairs instead of the elevator, and maybe fire your landscaper or housekeeper and start doing it yourself.
⦁ Breathe well and deeply-Learning to breathe deeply from your abdomen instead of your chest. Finding periods of time throughout your day for some deep breathing, in through the nose and out through the mouth, will increase mental alertness and energy. If you can, step outside even for a few moments to do this. Certainly, there’s no excuse not add this to your lifestyle!
⦁ Meditation-Whether meditation is formal, informal, spiritual, guided, transcendental, or merely sitting still and quiet for a few moments doesn’t matter. Finding times throughout the day to “go inside” and sit quietly calms the mind down, allowing you to function at an optimal level after.
Keep in mind that of all the brain healthy hints listed above, maintaining a healthy body weight is the most important, provided that your weight is maintained through a well-balanced lifestyle. Remember, your brain, more than any other factor, always determines the quality of your life. It is the most important body part to take care of.
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