Dr. Small’s Diet for Your Brain

Dr. Gary Small at Cambridge Forum lecture

Alzheimer’s, funny?

At many points Thursday night at the Cambridge Forum lecture, Dr. Gary Small a neuroscientist from UCLA and author of a new book, The Alzheimer’s Prevention Program had the audience laughing.

According to Small, this degenerative disease afflicts 36 million people worldwide, robs them of their memory and their dignity, and contributes to many of their primary caregivers suffering from clinical depression. One woman, who wished to remain anonymous, was visibly panicked about her own memory loss and came to the lecture to learn more. Manli Nouri, a biology student, was there because her grandfather died of Alzheimer’s and she was worried her 56-year-old mother might get it. Yet in the unadorned meetinghouse room in the First Parish Church in Cambridge, MA, people smiled.

Dr. Small offered tips for “remembering to remember.” One involved seven unrelated words: Beach, Professor, Horse, Teddy Bear, Cigar, Nun, and Pasta. He asked the audience to imagine these words together in a story, or mental image. People couldn’t help chuckling as they imagined a cigar-smoking nun with a teddy bear-holding professor eating pasta together on a beach. But it worked. People remembered the words.

Maybe it was nervous laughter. After all “every 70 seconds someone is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s,” said Small. And there is no cure.

Nor, it turns out, is there substantiated proof that prevention even works. According to an April 2010 National Institutes of Health (NIH) study, Preventing Alzheimer’s Disease and Cognitive Decline, “Firm conclusions cannot be drawn about the association of any modifiable risk factor with cognitive decline or Alzheimer’s disease.” In other words, more studies need to be done before definitively stating prevention works. “But,” as Small told the audience, “I’m not going to wait 20 years to start protecting my brain.”

His own research as director of UCLA’s Longevity Center, as well as many other studies he mentioned and can be found in his book, contributed to his assertion that making four simple changes to your life might prevent Alzheimer’s or at least prolong its onset. There is no guarantee, however.

Here’s a simplified version of Dr. Small’s daily “diet for the brain”:

1. Physical exercise.  A cardiovascular workout increases blood flow and endorphin release in your brain, which improves cognitive functioning.  “You don’t have to be a triathlete to protect your brain,” said Small. A daily brisk walk will do the trick.

2. Mental exercise. Small recommended crossword puzzles or some of the exercises in his book to strengthen neural circuits. Anything that stretches your brain, including speaking different languages or even juggling, should work. Just like with your physical exercise, make sure you cross train.

3. Stress management. Stress is not good for the brain.  When stressed, the brain receives increased levels of cortisol, which according to studies impairs memory. That means get on your yoga mat or do some deep breathing.

4. Eat well. Small suggested caloric control and a diet high in omega 3 fats and antioxidant fruits and vegetables. Pomegranates here we come.

The best recommendation of the evening?

“Dancing,” Small said, “It’s healthy for its physicality and the cognition needed to learn the moves.” When asked if in partner dancing that meant the leader protected his or her brain more then the follower he said, “Maybe we should do a study on that.”

Everyone laughed.

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