Think long term and protect your brain

Think long term and protect your brain

I’m sure I’m not alone in hoping I can maintain my mental capacity (stay sharp) for my whole life.  No-one wants to think that they might suffer cognitive decline or get Alzheimer’s disease.  And, while there is no guarantee, I’m sure, given the choice, you would make lifestyle changes if you knew they were gong to help prevent a loss of mental capacity.  As you will see, the three things above, when combined, make a difference.

Previous studies in older adults have highlighted the positive effects of omega-3 fatty acid (FA) supplementation, aerobic exercise, or cognitive stimulation on brain structure and function. However, until now, no-one had examined the combined effects of these interventions in patients suffering from mild cognitive impairment (MCI).

Using a randomized interventional design, researchers evaluated the effect of combined omega-3 FA supplementation, aerobic exercise and cognitive stimulation (target intervention) versus omega-3 FA supplementation and non-aerobic exercise (control intervention) on cognitive function and gray matter volume in patients with MCI.

The study analyzed potential vascular, metabolic or inflammatory mechanisms underlying these effects. Twenty-two patients (60-80 years)  underwent six months of omega-3 FA intake, aerobic cycling training and cognitive stimulation  or omega-3 FA intake and non-aerobic activity.

Before and after the interventions, cognitive performance, magnetic resonance imaging of the brain, intima-media thickness of the internal carotid artery and serum markers of glucose control, lipid and B-vitamin metabolism, and inflammation were assessed. 

After the intervention period, significant differences were observed in the brain structure between groups: grey matter volume decreased in the frontal, parietal and cingulate cortex of patients in the control intervention, while grey matter volume in these areas was preserved or even increased in the intervention group.  Decreases in homocysteine levels (a marker of inflammation) in the intervention group was associated with increasers in grey matter volume in the middle frontal cortex.

This small study provides preliminary evidence that omega-3 fatty acid intake combined with aerobic exercise and cognitive stimulation prevents atrophy in certain brain regions in patients with mild cognitive impairment, compared to omega-3 FA intake plus the control condition of stretching and toning.  While a larger study is needed to validate these findings, I’m erring on the side of caution by making sure I eat enough omega-3 rich foods, getting regular aerobic exercise and keeping my brain challenged.  

And, if I do get dementia, there is good evidence that even then, exercise helps.

Scientists reviewed 12 studies of the effects of exercise on people with dementia living in a nursing home.  The exercise routines included walking, movement to music and even hand exercises.  The length of the studies and the amount of exercise varied across the studies but most of them reported significant positive effects of physical activity on cognition, agitation, mood, mobility and functional ability.

So even if you do get dementia, try and remember to keep moving.


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David Beard
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