Cognitive decline is a deterioration of the functioning of the brain processes, caused by degeneration of the cerebral cortex. It is not a disease, but rather a description of a person’s condition. Although some kinds of memory loss are normal parts of ageing, these changes are not severe enough to interfere with the level of function.
In addition to progressive loss of grey matter in the brain, the hallmarks of cognitive decline include neurofibrillary tangles (twisted masses of protein fibres inside nerve cells) and senile plaques (nerve cell parts surrounding a group of proteins called beta-amyloid deposits) that clog the brain. In healthy individuals, regions of the brain interact to serve cognitive functions. With cognitive decline, there is less coordination between these regions, and a global loss of integrative function among the brain regions.
Cognitive decline is NOT a normal part of ageing
What CAUSES cognitive decline?
Cognitive decline tends to be associated with ageing,but it is not a normal part of ageing and these changes in the brain can also occur in younger people. Like most brain issues, it often involves a variety of factors - these can include:
- Chronic low-level inflammation – this is an important one! More on that below.
- Oxidative stress
- Hormonal imbalance
- Insulin resistance
- Excess body weight
- Poor nutrition
- Social factors, such as loneliness
- Chronic stress
- Recurring depression
- Substance abuse
- Physical injury
- Genetic predisposition
What’s the link with INFLAMMATION?
Inflammation is known to be associated with a higher risk of cognitive decline and dementia.
Inflammation is an immune system response to harmful stimuli. It is the body’s mechanism for healing such problems as infections, wounds, and tissue damage. The immune system increases blood flow to the affected area, and sends white blood cells to digest and destroy disease-producing agents. Once the stimuli – the infection, or tissue damage – have been resolved, the body ‘turns off’ the inflammatory response, and the symptoms disappear. This is known as acute inflammation.
Chronic inflammation is a different story, involving a longer-term response that can last for years. A chronic inflammatory attack extends beyond the initial stimuli, and can cause tissue death and thickening or scarring of connective tissues.
There are a number of reasons why inflammation may become chronic, including:
- Extended exposure to a particular irritant - such as toxins, poor diet or stress
- An inability to resolve whatever was causing the acute inflammatory response, or to “turn it off”
- An autoimmune disease that mistakes normal healthy tissue for a pathogen and attacks it – as with rheumatoid arthritis, for example.
- Chronic stress
- Toxins, such as pollution, alcohol and tobacco
- Processed food
- Cooking methods, such as deep frying, high heat
- Emotional trauma
- Sleep deprivation
- Extreme exercise
Is there a link with diseases such as ALZHEIMER’S?
Yes. Dementia can be caused by specific brain diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. Alzheimer’s disease is defined as a progressive degenerative disease of the brain that leads to dementia. It is the major cause of age-related cognitive decline, affecting 30 million people worldwide. The likelihood of having Alzheimer’s increases substantially with age; from 65 years of age, the risk doubles every five years. However - Alzheimer’s disease is not a normal part of ageing, and is not inevitable.
“Alzheimer’s is the most frequent cause of age-related cognitive decline. 30 million people are affected globally and it is likely to be 160 million by 2050.”
- Dr Dale Breseden, Action Against Alzheimer’s
Is cognitive decline PREVENTABLE?
Not only is cognitive decline preventable, it can also be reversed. As life expectancy increases, taking appropriate measures to prevent cognitive decline becomes more important than ever – to protect our own health, and the over-burdened health care system.
Many of the risk factors linked to cognitive decline are linked to diet, lifestyle and environmental factors. The common links between these risk factors are inflammation and oxidative stress, the major drivers of ageing and cell decline. The good news is that these factors can be modified with behavioural changes.
Such changes focus on: nutrition, exercise, sleep, and reduction of stress and toxins.
The further good news is that reducing the risk factors of cognitive decline can also reduce the risk of other chronic diseases, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and depression. The outcome of such treatment is improved general health.
What can I do to protect my brain health?
LOTS !! Below are Ten Top Tips specifically designed to lower the risks associated with cognitive decline .
The research strongly supports the role of omega-3, and including EPA and DHA, in lowering inflammation. These healthy fats generate nerve cells and are vital brain fuel. Historically, the human diet was high in anti-inflammatory omega-3 (coming primarily from marine sources) – but the modern western diet tends to be low in omega-3, and high in pro-inflammatory omega-6 (from animal sources).
TO DO: Consume oily fish, such as salmon. It is important that it is wild, rather than farmed. Supplementation could be useful; ensure that it contains more EPA than DHA.
2/ Reduce processed foods
Processed foods tend to be associated with higher inflammatory markers.
TO DO: Opt for ‘real foods’, which your grandmother would recognise. Anything in a box or a can with a label has been processed to some degree. Fresh foods are best.
3/ Reduce sugar and simple carbs
Research confirms the link between high glycaemic foods and higher inflammatory markers. Cognitive decline is considered to be diabetes of the brain.
TO DO: Limit processed foods and drinks, which tend to be high in sugar. Opt for fruits instead of added sugars. Replace simple carbohydrates with whole-grains.
4/ Optimise antioxidants
Antioxidants help to mop-up free radicals and prevent tissue damage. They are an essential part of an anti-inflammatory diet.
TO DO: Increase your intake of fruits and vegetables, which can protect against and reduce inflammation in the body. Berries are packed with antioxidants: think blueberries, raspberries and strawberries. Other antioxidant-rich foods include nuts, seeds, avocados, oily fish and olive oil.
5/ Balance hormones
Imbalances in thyroid hormones, sex hormones (estrogen, progesterone and testosterone) and cortisol have all been linked to an increased risk of cognitive decline.
TO DO: Limit exposure to endocrine-disruptors, including soy products, BPA (in some plastics and cash register tapes), phthalates (in fragrances and cosmetics), fire retardants and PFCs (in non-stick cookware and fast food containers).
6/ Reduce toxic exposure
Research suggests that toxins can leave deposits in the brain that interfere with neuronal functions. They can also increase oxidative stress, leading to free radical damage.
TO DO: Reduce your exposures to heavy metals (including aluminium, mercury, lead and arsenic), pesticides, pollution, and moulds. Make your own natural cleaning products. Limit alcohol intake, and stop smoking.
7/ Get chronic infections diagnosed & cured
Viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites can all leave toxic by-products in the body. The causes of these infections are often unresolved, and can push cognitive decline “over the edge”.
TO DO: Rather than just treat the symptoms, be sure to get to the root of chronic infections – particularly those of the gut, bladder, sinuses and gums. Functional lab tests can help to identify useful markers for diagnosis and monitoring.
8/ Optimise sleep
Sleep helps the brain to regenerate. Sleep deprivation has been strongly linked to the risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease.
TO DO: Aim for eight hours per night. Limit screen time at least one hour prior to going to bed, to optimise melatonin levels. It’s best to stick to a regular routine, going to bed and waking at the same time each day.
9/ Reduce stress
Stress is a major driver of inflammation. Elevated cortisol levels are toxic, particularly for hippocampal neurons (the part of the brain involved in memory).
TO DO: Consider practices such as meditation and yoga. Breathing exercises can be effective in quickly calming the fight-or-flight response. For chronic stress, consider asking for help.
Regular exercise feeds the brain. Studies show that physical activity helps reduce cognitive decline.
TO DO: Aim for 30-60 minutes of moderate exercise several times per week. Avoid extreme exercise, which can creative stress in the body.
For a more personalised plan you may consider functional testing, including genetic tests that can help assess your risk factors.
Join the Brain health programme, available online, to help keep your brain sharp and healthy https://thebrainhealthprogramme.co.uk
Writen by Scotti McLaren in collaboration with Nutri-360
Nutri-360 is a Functional nutrition practice focusing on mental health issues, hormonal health and gut health, owned and run by Kerry Fugard
Switzerland, South Africa
firstname.lastname@example.org / www.nutri-360.com