Dr. Kevin Passero
We all want to age well. In fact, aging should not be something to fear, it should be embraced. I mean, consider the alternative! Being alive is a privilege.
However, every day we see the pain and suffering associated with getting older and nothing is more freighting to many people than dementia or Alzheimer’s. While these are technically two different diagnoses, they equate to the same thing….the loss of our mental capacity as we get older.
While the loss of physical health as we age is something we all get nervous about, the loss of being able to remember our loved ones or how to take care of ourselves is completely terrifying. It represents a complete loss of identity and independence. And aside from that, there is also the concern of the burden it might place on loved ones like a spouse or a child. If you are like me and have dementia in your family history, you have likely thought about these scary realities.
But what if there was something you could be doing now to ensure that your brain stays healthy as you age, and your memory and thoughts stay sharp? Something that was an insurance policy to make sure you never forget the face of a loved one or had to be cared for by family members due to severe memory loss. We have all met and heard about people in their 90’s and beyond that are still mentally sharp as a tack. How do you make sure that is your future?
New research is showing us that age related memory loss is a preventable and often reversible condition for many people, even if you have family history like I do.
It involves managing common risk factors associated with heart disease like high cholesterol, high blood pressure and high blood sugar. You have probably heard about how important these factors are regarding heart attack and stroke risk, but the correlation with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease is new for most people. But if you think about how the brain and body work for a minute, it is easy to understand why they are closely related.
Our brain requires a lot of energy. In fact, the brain only accounts for about 2% of our body weight but utilizes 20% of the energy produced in our body every day! All this energy comes from the nutrients and oxygen that are delivered to the brain via blood vessels. Some are large vessels like the carotid artery (about as thick as a drinking straw) and some are tiny vessels like the arterioles in our capillary beds (about 7x thinner than a human hair). If these networks of blood vessels are not healthy, the flow of blood to the brain can be significantly reduced, starving our brain from the nutrients and oxygen needed to produce energy. And study after study is clearly showing that taking steps to improve the health of our blood vessels (large and small) has a major influence in preventing, slowing, and even reversing age related cognitive declines including Alzheimer’s disease.
Nancy came to my office with concerns about her family history of dementia. She was in her mid-60’s and was starting to notice little lapses in her memory and foggy thinking. While she could have written them off as no big deal, she wanted to see if she could take some proactive steps to improve her cognitive function and prevent the dementia she saw her mother go through. Her primary doctor had told her she was just getting older, so she decided to seek my help, knowing that I take a more holistic approach to health concerns.
Her initial blood work showed some elevations of key markers associated with vascular health including boarder line elevated blood sugar, elevated cholesterol and lipid markers and slightly elevated blood pressure. Every abnormality was just slightly above the standard reference ranges, so her other doctors were not recommending any actionable treatment steps. In addition, because there was no family history of heart disease or stroke, she was considered low risk.
But nobody was thinking about these factors in regard to her brain…except me. We immediately implemented our signature lifestyle and nutrition plan proven to lower cholesterol, blood sugar, blood pressure and inflammation in addition to targeted natural therapies. Within 12 weeks all her vascular risk factors (blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar) had normalized into ideal ranges and her memory had started to improve! Her thinking was clearer and sharper, and she was no longer forgetting little things like where she put her keys or which night her granddaughter had soccer practice. She was able to remember things without writing them down and found that her life felt so much more organized and less chaotic.
Over the last decade, research has become overwhelmingly clear that taking care of your vascular system means so much more than preventing heart attack and stroke. It is directly related to keeping your brain healthy and sharp and preventing age-related cognitive declines and even Alzheimer’s disease.
Here are 3 steps you can take to improve your vascular health:
- Optimize Blood Pressure- Ideal blood pressure levels are readings below 120/80mmhg. The first step you should take is to purchase a home blood pressure monitor and track your pressures 1-2x daily. And don’t just track them when you are relaxed. Take them while at work or when you are feeling stressed. Considering many of us spend a lot of our day stressed out, it is important to know what your blood pressure is doing at all times. If you are getting numbers above 120/80mmhg on a consistent basis, you have a problem. One easy step to support healthier blood pressure is to eat foods that increase nitric oxide (NO). Nitric oxide helps our blood vessels to relax and reduces pressure in the arteries. Foods that significantly help increase NO production include beets and leafy greens. Are you eating enough greens everyday?
- Lower Cholesterol- Lowering LDL (bad cholesterol) is the most important thing you can do to improve vascular heath when it comes to cholesterol. Increased fiber intake is a proven way to lower LDL and in the clinic, we often recommend that people do this by eating 1-1.5 servings of oatmeal every day. It will work wonders to lower your LDL. If you don’t like oatmeal (although I encourage you to try it for a while anyway), you can increase other high fiber foods and get a similar effect. Adding ground flax seed or chia seed to the diet every day or making sure you eat beans everyday is another proven way to lower LDL cholesterol. Do you get enough fiber in your diet?
- Balance Blood Sugar– If your fasting blood sugar is over 94, or your hemoglobin A1C is over 5.5 or your fasting insulin is over 10, you need to improve your blood sugar balance. Reducing simple carbohydrates and sugar consumption is typically the fastest and easiest way to improve blood sugar. Beans and legumes are also a great way to lower blood sugar because they contain a lot of resistant starch which slows the absorption of sugar into the blood stream. You might think that eating more protein will be a good solution but be careful. Your body converts protein into sugar, and we find many people in our clinic on high protein diets have elevated blood sugar levels. My advice is to start simple and look for all the places in your diet where you can reduce sugar and sweets and eliminate refined carbohydrates.
If you are intested in discussing your brain health and getting a detailed assessment of your vascular risk factors, call the office at 410-266-9110 to inquire about setting up a complimentary discovery call to explore ways to ensure you have a healthy aging brain.