How to Maintain Optimal Brain Function as We Age

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One of the key pillars of health that we focus on here at Wild Health, and within the wider field of Precision Medicine, is neurobehavioral. That is, how the brain functions and affects your behavior, emotion, and learning. Maintaining optimal brain function is crucial, as it affects everything from our mood and memory, to heart health and our ability to move. So, let’s explore what it means to have a healthy functioning brain – and how to maintain it as we age.

Let’s lay some groundwork, first. There are a few single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), or variations at a single position in a DNA sequence, that are associated with an increased risk of developing specific brain-related diseases or conditions. We assess the following, specifically:

  1. APOE (Apolipoprotein E): This gene codes for a protein involved in fat metabolism and is also crucial for normal brain function. There are three common versions (alleles) of the gene: APOE2, APOE3, and APOE4. The APOE4 allele is associated with an increased risk for developing Alzheimer's disease and an earlier age of disease onset. It’s important to note that having the APOE4 allele does not mean a person will definitely develop Alzheimer’s disease, just as not having the allele does not guarantee immunity.

  1. MTHFR (Methylenetetrahydrofolate Reductase): That’s a mouthful. This gene is involved in a chemical process called methylation, which is crucial for the function of nearly all bodily systems. Certain variations of this gene, like the C677T and A1298C polymorphisms, can lead to a less active MTHFR enzyme, potentially leading to a buildup of homocysteine (an amino acid), which has been associated with heart disease and stroke in specific populations, as well as mental health disorders like depression and anxiety.

  1. COMT (Catechol-O-Methyltransferase): This gene codes for an enzyme that helps break down certain neurotransmitters – chemical messengers in the brain– such as dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. The G-to-A SNP at codon 158 (Val158Met) results in the production of a version of the enzyme that's up to four times less effective. This can affect a variety of mental health conditions, including depression, and anxiety.

  1. BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor): BDNF plays a vital role in the survival of nerve cells (neurons) by influencing their growth, maturation, and maintenance. The Val66Met SNP in the BDNF gene may affect the activity of this protein in the brain. Some studies suggest that this SNP might be associated with a slight reduction in the size of the hippocampus – the area of the brain associated with memory– potentially contributing to cognitive and mental health issues.

  1. SLC6A4 (Solute Carrier Family 6 Member 4): This gene influences the function of the serotonin transporter, a protein that regulates the amount of serotonin available to brain cells. The "short" variant of the serotonin transporter (5-HTTLPR) has been associated with an increased risk of depression, particularly in conjunction with stressful life events.

Understanding these SNPs can help a Precision Medicine physician make personalized treatment recommendations, including lifestyle changes, dietary advice, and even specific therapeutic interventions to regulate these genes. The goal is to optimize brain health by accounting for genetic susceptibility and modifying environmental and lifestyle factors accordingly.

How to Avoid Cognitive Decline

There are several lifestyle and epigenetic factors that can help reduce the risk of developing cognitive disorders and diseases, as well as prolong the health span of your brain – or sharpen your mental acuity altogether. If you think they’re fundamental, you’re right, but worth repeating:

  1. Regular Physical Exercise: Exercise improves blood flow to the brain, supporting the growth and survival of neurons. It also reduces inflammation and insulin resistance, both of which can cause cognitive decline, if not managed. Regular physical exercise, whether it's a brisk walk, yoga, or weight lifting, can help maintain sharp mental acuity – a measure of the brain’s ability to respond to stimulus.

  1. Balanced, Healthy Diet: A balanced diet rich in whole foods, like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats is ideal. Some studies suggest that the Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes these elements, may be particularly beneficial for brain health.

  1. Mental Stimulation & Brain Training: It makes perfect sense that engaging in mentally stimulating activities throughout life can help preserve cognitive function. This could be reading, doing puzzles and word games, learning new skills like art or language (try DuoLingo), playing a musical instrument, or using any number of brain training apps, like Lumosity.

Neurofeedback training is a form of biofeedback where real-time displays of brain activity are used to teach self-regulation of brain function. This technique is often used in treating a variety of conditions, including ADHD, anxiety, depression, and sleep disorders. Neurofeedback sessions generally involve placing sensors on the scalp to measure brain waves while performing a task. Over time, an individual can learn to control their brain wave patterns, potentially improving mental acuity and emotional regulation. Here at Wild Health, we partner with Peak Brain Institute to offer our Premium members neurofeedback training and QEEG brain mapping.

  1. Good Quality Sleep: I am constantly stressing the importance of high-quality sleep for all aspects of our health. Particularly related to cognitive function, poor sleep has been associated with an increased risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. Aim for 7-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep per night by establishing a solid evening routine – or learn more about your sleep chronotype and factors affecting sleep through a genetic analysis at Wild Health.

  1. Stress Management: Stress has a profound effect on the brain. Chronic stress can ‘shrink’ the hippocampus, amygdala, and frontal cortex – key parts of the brain associated with memory, metabolism, and our emotional response. Whatever works for you, may it be guided meditations, breathwork, journaling, or movement, daily stress management is essential for our wellbeing.

Nutrition and Supplementation for a Healthy Brain

The food we eat significantly affects our brain function. Certain nutrients, in particular, are known for their brain-boosting benefits:

  1. Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Found in fish like salmon and mackerel, as well as in flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts, these fatty acids are crucial for brain health. They are integral to cell membranes and have been shown to support brain function and reduce the risk of cognitive decline.

  1. Antioxidants: Foods rich in antioxidants, like blueberries, strawberries, spinach, and dark chocolate, can counteract harmful free radicals that cause oxidative stress (which contribute to cognitive decline), protecting brain cells.

  1. B Vitamins: Particularly B6, B9, and B12 have been shown to protect against brain atrophy, improve brain function, and even delay the onset of Alzheimer's disease. These vitamins can also lower homocysteine levels – an amino acid linked to brain shrinkage and an increased risk of Alzheimer's disease.

  1. Probiotics: The gut-brain axis represents the relationship between your gut health and brain function. Probiotics in yogurts, fermented foods, and certain supplements can help maintain a healthy gut microbiome, which may contribute to improved mental health, lower levels of inflammation, improved nutrient absorption, and lower stress and anxiety.

At Wild Health, we stand behind Thorne supplements, which are rigorously tested for safety and efficacy. But every individual’s diet and supplementation regimen is unique to them. Working with your Precision Medicine physician is preferred for ensuring proper nutrition for your health and goals.

Preventing Diseases with Emerging Science

Genetic diseases such as Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and Parkinson's significantly and sometimes rapidly negatively affect brain health. But, advancements in genetic technologies and Precision Medicine have opened new avenues for treatment. Scientists and research teams worldwide are working diligently to develop new drugs and technologies that target cognitive decline and disease. For instance, with Alzheimer's disease, there are ongoing efforts to develop drugs that target beta-amyloid proteins and tau proteins, which are hallmarks of the disease. This work is in its infancy with much more research required, but it has the potential to make a significant impact. Elsewhere and at the same time, various CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technologies offer the potential to directly correct genetic abnormalities, such as those associated with the aforementioned diseases.

All in all, maintaining optimal cognitive function requires a holistic approach that considers all aspects of our lives, as is the approach of Precision Medicine. Emerging techniques, from neurofeedback training to gene-editing, offer promising avenues for improving brain health, while Precision Medicine continues to unlock ways to treat genetic diseases impacting the brain. However, the constant caveat is that individual needs vary greatly, and it’s essential to consult with your healthcare providers to develop a tailored plan for maintaining optimal brain (and overall) health.