Archive for August, 2016
You don’t have to passively wait on the sidelines as your brain ages. You can do a lot to put the odds in your favor that your brain tissue will stay healthy as you get older.
For instance, researchers are finding there are dependable, drug-free ways to keep an important part of your brain – the thalamus – functioning the way it’s supposed to.
Here’s what you need to do. . .
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The thalamus is crucial for performing day-to-day activities. It enables you to read these words by interpreting and distributing the relevant sensory inputs. This organ, located in the middle of your head, is also central to the coordination of muscle movement. Your muscles need the thalamus to mediate their actions, a role that enables you to stand and walk.
During diseases like multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s, the thalamus often loses much of its function. That’s why people with these problems can suffer muscle stiffness and brain fog.
Mindfulness Improves the Mind
Studies confirm the benefits of a therapy that many alternative practitioners have advocated for years. It’s now been proven that meditation can help improve thalamus function in conditions like Parkinson’s disease.
When researchers at the University of Antwerp in Belgium looked at how mindful meditation could influence Parkinson’s symptoms, they found that eight weeks of meditative practice changed the structure of thalamus nerve tissue for the better.1
This is quite a finding: Thinking in a certain way modifies tissue.
The researchers found that gray matter i.e. brain cells in the thalamus increased as a result of the mindfulness exercises. Plus, increases in neuronal tissue were also found in other important parts of the brain.
The scientists concluded that these mindful improvements help support better brain performance and may be used to ease muscle problems and intellectual impairments caused by Parkinson’s disease.
The Opposite of Meditation Can Also Help
Stimulating activities like certain video games may also help the thalamus operate more effectively. A study at the Sapienza University in Rome used games from Nintendo to demonstrate that word memory exercises, puzzles and other types of intellectual challenges can improve the thalamus and its neuronal links.2
This study focused on people with multiple sclerosis whose brains had lost connectivity in the thalamus. The thalamus deterioration was causing muscle stiffness and weakness along with a mind-numbing brain fog.
In this investigation, people spent two months playing the games called Dr. Kawashima’s Brain Training for 30 minutes a day, five days a week. At the end of that period, MRI images of their brains showed new connections forming in the thalamus. These connections were in a network of neurons crucial to cognitive abilities.
The Italian researchers say that the changes fostered by the video games show that the brain can be coaxed into rebuilding parts of itself.
“This means that even a widespread and common-use tool like video games can promote brain plasticity and can aid in cognitive rehabilitation for people with neurological diseases, such as multiple sclerosis,” says researcher Laura De Giglio.
My impulse is to say that video games are practically the opposite of quiet meditation, and it’s interesting that both practices can build brain tissue. But I’m probably being a bit unfair. Video gamers probably do enter a sort of altered state that might be analogous to meditation. In the latter, you both relax AND concentrate intently.
Your Brain – Use it or Lose It
These types of studies prove the brain has a power to heal itself that mainstream medicine has been slow to recognize. And if you are encountering muscle and memory difficulties, finding a local course in how to practice mindfulness and meditation is well worth your while. Or maybe trying those Nintendo games. They sound intriguing.
But even if your brain hasn’t yet encountered these serious medical problems, you should act now to keep it functioning at full capacity: The best brain defense is an intellectually engaged offense.
After four years tracking the health of nearly 2,000 people over age 70, researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona have found the most effective brain activity to reduce the risk of cognitive decline.
It’s not reading, tackling crossword puzzles, pursuing creative hobbies, or attending social gatherings. All those things help, but they don’t top the list.
Instead, it’s logging on to your PC, laptop or smartphone — to read this newsletter for example. Keep reading for the full story. . .
Special Message From Lee Euler, Editor
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Computer Users are Most Protected
Lead author Janina Krell-Roesch, Ph.D., presented her team’s research at the American Academy of Neurology’s annual meeting in Vancouver, Canada, in April.
Their study looked at 1,929 people with good cognition. The participants were asked to fill out a questionnaire about their activities during the previous 12 months.
During the following four years, 456 developed mild cognitive impairment (MCI). Of these, 31% did not use computers compared to only 18% that did report using them at least once a week.
Computer users were 42% less likely to develop MCI, a condition that is often a forerunner to dementia.
How does that compare to other activities? Magazine readers were found to have 30% lower risk. Attendance at social events correlated with a 23% lower risk of MCI. People who engaged in crafts like knitting enjoyed a 16% reduced risk, and those who played puzzles/games saw a 14% drop.
Dr Krell-Roesch said, “The results show the importance of keeping the mind active as we age. While this study only shows association, not cause and effect, as people age they may want to consider participating in activities like these because they may keep a mind healthier, longer.”
Dr. Krell-Roesch rightly points out that we have to be cautious about what’s-causing-what. It’s well known that lack of education correlates with a higher risk of dementia, for example, and it’s possible that frequent computer users are better educated and more intelligent in general.
These days, I would think that people who don’t use computers at all are in the poorer, less educated segment of the population, given the fact that the infernal little machines are everywhere. And likewise they probably receive less health care and are more likely to have bad health habits.
Nonetheless it’s striking that all the factors cited were correlated with a lower risk of MCI: using a computer, reading, socializing, pursuing a hobby and playing games.
This study is just one more item in a pile of evidence that ANY mentally stimulating activity helps build a “cognitive reserve” against brain degeneration.
Put simply, you must use it or lose it.
Nearly two-thirds of older people now spend between eleven and thirty hours each week using the internet. If we can believe the results of this study and others – and I think we can – then this should lead to reduced numbers of people developing dementia.
And yet an earlier Mayo Clinic study throws some doubt on this.
Midlife Cognitive Activity in Educated APOE4 Carriers
Researchers divided 393 participants over 70 into those who had either more than 14 years of education or less. They also took brain scans.
Their findings showed that cognitive and physical activities did not alter the build-up of damaging amyloid brain plaques and had no effect on glucose metabolism or brain size.
But it did show those with the most education who also had the APOE4 gene – the one believed responsible for increasing Alzheimer’s risk – and who engaged in high cognitive activities in midlife, had a lower burden of amyloid than the most educated APOE4 carriers with low midlife cognitive activity.
The study appears to muddy the waters, but lead author Dr Prashanthi Vemuri said, “There is substantial evidence that [physical and mental] activities help to delay the onset of memory and thinking problems. What we don’t know is how this process works.”
She went on to say that everyone, regardless of whether they carry the APOE4 gene, should keep physically and mentally active to help ward off dementia.
And their most recent study suggests using your computer is the best way of achieving this.
Seniors Get Sharper Each Year
Nadia Steiber, at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, located in Austria, finds today’s over 50s score better on cognitive tests than people of similar age did in the past.
While better education is thought to account for some of this trend, she believes the ongoing cognitive challenge and stimulation from using computer technology is an important reason.
She writes, “While an aging population may show falling levels of average physical health, the same population may exhibit increasing levels of cognitive functioning and thus ‘age’ more successfully in the cognitive than the physical domain.”
So keep surfing the internet and stay a regular reader of this newsletter. It could be your best bet for stimulating those little grey cells and warding off dementia.
An easy way to improve your memory and make better neural connections in your brain tissue may be no farther away than your kitchen cabinet.
In tests at Rush University in Chicago, researchers have found that ingestion of cinnamon may be able make significant changes to the hippocampus – the memory center of the brain – and enhance your learning abilities.1
So far, most of the tests and analyses have been performed on rodents. But researcher Kalipada Pahan firmly believes the same effects occur in humans. And what are those effects? Let’s take a look. . .
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“The increase in learning in poor-learning mice after cinnamon treatment was significant,” says Prof. Pahan.
He links the boost in learning ability to a chemical the body makes from cinnamon’s compounds: sodium benzoate, which is also a preservative used in processed foods.
Now, sodium benzoate may not be a great idea as a food additive, because of its interaction with other food ingredients, but when your liver makes this compound from the cinnamon you eat, the chemical crosses the blood-brain barrier and helps neurons regenerate.
The tests at Rush show that the chemical cinnamaldehyde, which endows cinnamon with its unique odor and flavor, is the compound the liver uses to make sodium benzoate.
According to Prof. Pahan, “Sodium benzoate then becomes the active compound, which readily enters the brain and stimulates hippocampal plasticity.”
Better Learning Through Cinnamon
In these lab experiments, the researchers found that the hippocampus in the brains of animals that were poor at learning new tasks had an excess of a protein called GABRA5 (Gamma-aminobutyric acid alpha receptor 5). GABRA5 inhibits the transmission of signals between neurons.
At the same time, the slow learners had too little CREB (the acronym for “cAMP response element-binding protein”). CREB has been shown to help with acquiring new knowledge and keeping memories intact over extended periods of time.
Happy news: The consumption of cinnamon fixed both those situations. It raised the amount of memory-boosting CREB and dropped the level of memory-crippling GABRA5.
Potential Help for Parkinson’s Disease
In other lab tests at Rush, researchers have found that cinnamon may help change brain malfunctions involved in Parkinson’s disease.2
These studies showed that the liver’s production of sodium benzoate from cinnamon helped ease the movement difficulties that plague Parkinson’s sufferers. It also corrected the levels of neurotransmitters that are altered by the disease.
The sodium benzoate increased the supply of the brain proteins known as Parkin and DJ-1, which are sharply lower in the brains of people suffering from Parkinson’s.
And at least one other test performed on people confirms that sodium benzoate holds promise as a treatment for human memory problems.
This study, performed on about five dozen older folks who were suffering from amnestic mild cognitive impairment and mild Alzheimer’s disease, showed that six months of sodium benzoate “substantially improved cognitive and overall functions in patients with early-phase AD (Alzheimer’s disease).” 3
More research is needed, but I expect it’s better to help your body manufacture its own sodium benzoate from the foods you eat than it is to ingest this chemical. But in spite of the potential benefits of cinnamon, don’t just go ahead and eat very large doses of the spice.
First off, you should look for the type of cinnamon that comes from Ceylon and Sri Lanka to keep from consuming coumarin – a blood thinner that occurs in Chinese cinnamon, the type that is most commonly sold in supermarkets. And since cinnamon may kill bacteria, using this spice may endanger some of the beneficial microbes in the intestines.
Cinnamon has so many benefits – including control of blood sugar – it may deserve to be called a superfood. But for me, its antibacterial action poses a problem. If you decide to supplement with cinnamon, it may help to take probiotic supplements between meals to maintain the good bacteria in your digestive system.
While Alzheimer’s grabs all the headlines, the second most common form of dementia, vascular dementia (VaD), affects 1.75 million Americans and is growing fast in the US — and worldwide, too.
Many people are affected by one of the key risk factors for VaD, but have no idea there’s a sword hanging over the heads.
That’s because, most of the time, you don’t feel any symptoms from this risk factor and you’ll find out you have it only if you make a visit to your doctor.
The risk factor I’m talking about is high blood pressure, also known as hypertension.
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Dementia Risk Increases by 62%
In 2011 researchers analyzed eleven population studies to see if hypertension was linked to VaD. Population studies follow groups of people over a long period of time in search of connections between their lifestyles and health conditions and the diseases they eventually get. While not perfect, these studies are a way of identifying causes of diseases that appear only after many, many years have passed.
In all eleven studies, high blood pressure was significantly associated with vascular dementia. The authors suggested “rigorous treatment of hypertension as a key measure to help prevent the development of VaD.”
These studies were relatively small, however.
So in June, 2016 a study carried out in the UK looked at a database of more than four million Britons.
Results were divided into three age categories:
For those aged 30-50, heightened readings increased the risk of VaD in later life by 62%. In the 51 to 70 age group, the risk increased by 26%.
Hypertension also increases the risk of strokes and mini-strokes which in turn raise the risk for VaD. But even taking stroke patients into account, there was still a higher risk of dementia, indicating that everybody under 70 would benefit by reducing high blood pressure.
For people over 70, reducing blood pressure had no effect on dementia outcomes. This finding was deemed important because some research suggests attempting to lower high blood pressure with drugs in this age group actually increases the risk of VaD.
In fact, I wonder how many of the vascular dementia cases in all these studies were the result of high blood pressure itself and how many were the result of the blood pressure medications. I don’t have an answer to that, but I do know this. . .
Drugs are Not the Answer to High Blood Pressure
Please don’t get me wrong. I accept the finding that hypertension can cause changes in the structure and function of blood vessels in the brain leading to cerebral artery disease — and a higher risk of VaD. (See Issue #114 for more proof.)
High blood pressure causes a decrease or obstruction in blood flow, white matter lesions (damage to nerve fibers), lacunas (pits of fluid in deep regions of the brain), alterations in the blood-brain barrier and an increased risk of stroke and hemorrhage.
Lowering blood pressure with antihypertensive drugs might seem to be a simple solution to the problem.
Don’t believe it.
While some clinical trials report a reduced risk of dementia for those on medication, others found no benefit. Most patients hate the drugs and stop using them after a brief effort.
Because of these mixed results and the lack of consensus, there are no guidelines on the use of antihypertensive drugs for the prevention of vascular dementia, even among mainstream doctors. I think drug treatment for this condition is a terrible idea.
What to Do
Almost half of those with high blood pressure are unaware they have it. So it’s important to have yourself checked at regular intervals.
Even such a simple procedure has its problems. People tend to be nervous when their blood pressure is taken, because they’re in a doctor’s office, and the procedure itself is unpleasant. I hate it myself.
The result is a phenomenon called “white coat hypertension” – elevated blood pressure as a result of this nerve-racking test. If you don’t want to become a victim of “white coat hypertension” and end up with a prescription you don’t need, make sure you are calm and comfortable before the test is taken.
People like myself who practice daily meditation have an edge because it’s quite easy to calm yourself down while Nurse Ratched puts the tourniquet on your arm and cuts off all blood flow. Another tip is to read the funny papers beforehand, or think of something pleasant – a happy time in your life, like your first kiss or seeing your first grandchild.
Don’t be shy about asking the doctor or nurse to take your blood pressure twice to confirm the results, especially if they tell you the first reading was high. Just tell them you felt nervous or you’re under a lot of stress.
How High is Too High?
To further complicate things, there is some controversy about what’s considered normal blood pressure and what’s dangerously high. I don’t want to wade into that one, except to say: If I were told my blood pressure is high, I would NOT go on medications.
I would meditate, take up Qi Gong, try yoga, start taking a daily walk, and look for ways to relax such as hobbies, good books or movie comedies. I would also do something about other conditions like weight, if those are issues. I hope I don’t need to say this to my long-time readers, but if you’re a new subscriber, please know you need to eat the lowest-carbohydrate diet you can tolerate, and eliminate sugar completely.
As an herbal fix, try drinking hibiscus tea on a regular basis.
If you maintain healthy blood pressure, you’ll not only support better memory and clear thinking, you’ll also cut the risk of heart disease, stroke and kidney failure. Make no mistake: These simple lifestyle strategies can have profound effects on health.
It’s been nicknamed “the forgotten vitamin”.
Yes, when it comes to vitamins, most of us only know our alphabet from A to E. But there’s another one that lies beyond: Vitamin K.
Even people who know about this vitamin think we’re getting plenty of it in our food, and it only serves one function in the body anyway, so there’s no need to consider it further.
Wrong on all counts.
Not only do we need this vitamin for its well-known role in blood clotting, but it’s now known to be needed for strong bones, flexible arteries and protection against cancer.
And the latest research shows it plays important roles in the brain, too.
As for getting enough in our food, even this is now questioned. While the average diet may be sufficient when it comes to blood clotting, it doesn’t provide enough of this nutrient for the other important functions.
Keep reading to find out how much you need and the best way to get it. . .
A Note from Lee Euler, Editor & Publisher
Surprised Brain Scientists Discover…
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One thoroughly-documented research study concluded:
“Their brains performed as if they were 14 YEARS YOUNGER!”
Wouldn’t you love it if your brain functioned like that — for life? The very encouraging news is: There’s a lot you can do to keep your brain young! Take a look at the groundbreaking research which proves it.
Vital Roles in Brain Function
Vitamin K is actually a family of fat soluble nutrients called phylloquinone (K1) and a group of molecules called menaquinones (K2).
K1 is needed for blood clotting and brain health. K2 makes sure calcium is laid in bones and teeth — not in blood vessels where it contributes to plaque build-up in the cardiovascular system and the brain.
Both forms are important when it comes to mental function but research so far has focused on K1.
Within brain cells K1 is involved with the synthesis of sphingolipids. These are major components of nerve cell membranes and the myelin sheath that surrounds nerve cells. K1 also activates proteins that have important roles in the brain. Insufficient levels of K1 will disrupt wide-ranging functions of the nervous system.
Better Cognition, Memory and Behavior
A study of 320 cognitively healthy men and women aged between 70 and 85 found those with higher blood concentrations of K1 had better brain speed and verbal episodic memory (recall of events that occur within your experience, like where you left your car keys).
Of two studies that looked at dietary intake of K1 in seniors, the first found those with the highest intake scored better on a standard cognitive test and suffered fewer behavioral disorders. The second found the ones with the highest intake had fewer and less severe subjective memory complaints – i.e. they felt like their memories were working pretty well.
Blood Thinners Damage the Brain
Nearly seven million Americans at risk of heart attack or stroke are prescribed anticoagulant drugs such as warfarin to prevent harmful blood clots. These medications work by interfering with the action of vitamin K.
Does this increase the risk of dementia? Several studies sought to find out.
267 people with an average age of 83 undertook a cognitive test. Even after taking into account over a dozen factors that could influence the results, the risk of cognitive impairment was 17.4% higher in those who took blood thinning medication.
Another study of older people taking these drugs found less gray matter volume in the brain including the hippocampus. This means less ability to process information in a vital area for learning and memory and one of the first areas to be affected by Alzheimer’s.
In a third study, 7,133 cognitively healthy people aged 65 or above were followed over a period of ten years. Those taking anticoagulants performed significantly worse when it came to visual memory and verbal fluency tests.
K Shortfall in the Diet
1,379 adults living in Ireland were found to have an average daily K intake of 79 micrograms, well below the US adequate intake of 120mcg for men and 90mcg for women.
Katarzyna Maresz, PhD., President of The International Science and Health Foundation, writes that “Vitamin K, particularly as vitamin K2, is nearly nonexistent in junk food, with little being consumed even in a healthy Western diet.”
John Day is an MD-cardiologist and Medical Director of Heart Rhythm Services in Salt Lake City. He writes that “vitamin K1 and vitamin K2 deficiency is common in the Western world.”
It’s not hard to get a good intake of vitamin K provided you choose the right foods.
Best sources of K1 are green vegetables such as collards, turnip greens, spinach, kale and broccoli.
If you eat enough K1 to fulfill the body’s requirements, it can convert some of it to K2. However, it’s better insurance to get K2 from dietary sources. These include fermented foods such as sauerkraut and soybeans, gouda and brie cheese, and grass-fed meat and dairy products.