Something as easy as adding more spinach, kale, collards, chard and mustard greens to your diet could help slow cognitive decline, according to new research. The study also examined the nutrients responsible for the effect, linking vitamin K consumption to slower cognitive decline for the first time.
“Losing one’s memory or cognitive abilities is one of the biggest fears for people as they get older,”
said Martha Clare Morris, Sc.D., assistant provost for community research at Rush University Medical Center and leader of the research team.
“Since declining cognitive ability is central to Alzheimer’s disease and dementias, increasing consumption of green leafy vegetables could offer a very simple, affordable and non-invasive way of potentially protecting your brain from Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.”
The researchers tracked the diets and cognitive abilities of more than 950 older adults for an average of five years and saw a significant decrease in the rate of cognitive decline for study participants who consumed greater amounts of green leafy vegetables. People who ate one to two servings per day had the cognitive ability of a person 11 years younger than those who consumed none.
When the researchers examined individual nutrients linked with slowing cognitive decline, they found that vitamin K, lutein, folate and beta-carotene were most likely helping to keep the brain healthy.
“Our study identified some very novel associations,” said Morris, who presented the research at the American Society for Nutrition (ASN) Annual Meeting. “No other studies have looked at vitamin K in relation to change in cognitive abilities over time, and only a limited number of studies have found some association with lutein.” Other studies have linked folate and beta-carotene intake with slower cognitive decline.
“With baby boomers approaching old age, there is huge public demand for lifestyle behaviors that can ward off loss of memory and other cognitive abilities with age,” said Morris. “Our study provides evidence that eating green leafy vegetables and other foods rich in vitamin K, lutein and beta-carotene can help to keep the brain healthy to preserve functioning.”
In addition to green leafy vegetables, other good sources of vitamin K, lutein, folate and beta-carotene include brightly colored fruits and vegetables. A diet rich in vitamins E and C also may help prevent oxidative damage to neurons. One study found that vitamin E and vitamin C supplements taken together reduced the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by 78%. Omega-3s and vitamin D also may have protective effects due to their anti-inflammatory properties.
Eight Habits that Improve Cognitive Function
Researchers at Boston University School of Medicine discovered more evidence that physical activity is beneficial for brain health and cognition. The study found that certain hormones, which are increased during exercise, may help improve memory. The researchers were able to correlate blood hormone levels from aerobic fitness, and identify positive effects on memory function linked to exercise.
Researchers at Dana-Farber and Harvard Medical School released a different study showing a specific molecule released during endurance exercise that improves cognition and protects the brain against degeneration.
Openness to Experience
A study from October 2013 titled, “The Impact of Sustained Engagement on Cognitive Function in Older Adults: The Synapse Project” found that learning new and demanding skills while maintaining an engaged social network are key to staying sharp as we age.
The findings reveal that less demanding activities, such as listening to classical music or simply completing word puzzles, probably doesn’t provide noticeable benefits to an aging mind and brain. Older adults have long been encouraged to stay active and to flex their memory and learning like any muscle that you have to “use it or lose it.” However, this new research indicates that not all mind-engaging activities improve cognitive function. Lead researcher Denise Park of the University of Texas at Dallas says, “It seems it is not enough just to get out and do something—it is important to get out and do something that is unfamiliar and mentally challenging, and provides broad stimulation mentally and socially. When you are inside your comfort zone you may be outside of the enhancement zone.”
Another study found that a training program designed to boost cognition in older adults also increased their openness to new experiences demonstrating for the first time that a non-drug intervention in older adults can change a personality trait once thought to be fixed throughout a person’s lifespan.
Curiosity and Creativity
A study published in July of 2013 found that reading books, writing, and participating in brain-stimulating activities at any age may preserve memory. Neuroscientists discovered that reading a novel can improve brain function on a variety of levels. This study on the brain benefits of reading fiction was conducted at Emory University. The study was titled, “Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain,” and was published in the journal Brain Connectivity.
The researchers found that becoming engrossed in a novel enhances connectivity in the brain and improves brain function. Interestingly, reading fiction was found to improve the reader’s ability to put themselves in another person’s shoes and flex the imagination in a way that is similar to the visualization an athlete would do while mentally rehearsing a motion in sports.
“Our study suggests that exercising your brain by taking part in activities such as these across a person’s lifetime, from childhood through old age, is important for brain health in old age,” concluded co-author Robert S. Wilson, PhD.
In February 2014 Professor of Psychology, John Cacioppo, from University of Chicago, presented findings which identified that the health consequences of feeling lonely can trigger psychological and cognitive decline.
Cacioppo’s research found that feeling isolated from others can: disrupt sleep, elevate blood pressure, increase morning rises in the stress hormone cortisol, alter gene expression in immune cells, increase depression, and lower overall subjective well-being…all of these factors conspire to disrupt optimal brain function, connectivity, and reduce cognitive function.
A 2013 pilot study by researchers at Harvard’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center identified that the brain changes associated with meditation and subsequent stress reduction may play an important role in slowing the progression of age-related cognitive disorders like Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. Rebecca Erwin Wells, MD, MPH, explained, “We were particularly interested in looking at the default mode network—the brain system that is engaged when people remember past events or envision the future, for example—and the hippocampus—the part of the brain responsible for emotions, learning and memory—because the hippocampus is known to atrophy as people progress toward mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease. We also know that as people age, there’s a high correlation between perceived stress and Alzheimer’s disease, so we wanted to know if stress reduction through meditation might improve cognitive reserve.”
Some religious affiliations practice meditating through prayer, singing, chanting, rosary, and a number of other ways to create meditating on God’s Holy Word.
Researchers at University of California, San Francisco have created a specialized video game that may help older people boost mental skills like handling multiple tasks at once. Dr. Adam Gazzaley of UCSF and colleagues published their findings in the September 2013 journal Nature.
In January of 2014, researchers at Johns Hopkins University reported that as few as 10 sessions of cognitive training improved an older person’s reasoning ability and speed-of-processing for up to a decade after the intervention. If someone received additional “booster” sessions over the next three years, the improvements were even more dramatic.
Get Enough Sleep
Scientists have known for decades that the brain requires sleep to consolidate learning and memory. Sleep researchers from Brown University presented groundbreaking new research that helps explain the specifics of how the sleeping brain masters a new task.
“It’s an intensive activity for the brain to consolidate learning and so the brain may benefit from sleep perhaps because more energy is available, or because distractions and new inputs are fewer,” said study author Yuka Sasaki, a research associate professor in Brown University’s Department of Cognitive, Linguistic, and Psychological Sciences.
“Sleep is not just a waste of time,” Yuka Sasaki concludes. The extent of reorganization that the brain accomplishes during sleep is suggested by the distinct roles the two brainwave oscillations appear to play.
A February 2014 study from University of California, San Francisco found an association between poor sleep quality and reduced gray matter volume in the brain’s frontal lobe, which helps control important processes such as working memory and executive function. “Previous imaging studies have suggested that sleep disturbances may be associated with structural brain changes in certain regions of the frontal lobe,” said lead author Linda Chao. “The surprising thing about this study is that it suggests poor sleep quality is associated with reduced gray matter volume throughout the entire frontal lobe and also globally in the brain.”
Reduce Chronic Stress
Neuroscientists have discovered that chronic stress and high levels of cortisol can damage the brain. A wide range of recent studies have affirmed the importance of maintaining healthy brain structure and connectivity by reducing chronic stress, which lowers cortisol.
Neuroscientists found that chronic stress triggers long-term changes in brain structure and function which can lead to cognitive decline. Their findings might explain why young people who are exposed to chronic stress early in life are prone to mental problems such as anxiety and mood disorders later in life, as well as learning difficulties.
The “stress hormone” cortisol is believed to create a domino effect that hard-wires pathways between the hippocampus and amygdala in a way that might create a vicious cycle by creating a brain that becomes predisposed to be in a constant state of fight-or-flight.
The researchers found that hardening wires, may be at the heart of the hyper-connected circuits associated with prolonged stress. This results in an excess of white matter in some areas of the brain. Ideally, the brain likes to trim the fat of excess wiring through neural pruning in order to maintain efficiency and streamlined communication within the brain.
Chronic stress has the ability to flip a switch in stem cells that turns them into a type of cell that inhibits connections to the prefrontal cortex, which would improve learning and memory, but lays down durable scaffolding linked to anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Since many of our readers are within the Baby Boomer generation, we thought it beneficial to provide information on how to retain cognitive skills well into your future.