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Natural Awakenings Greater Boston - Rhode Island

Lifestyle Interventions to Improve Brain Function

Oct 02, 2017 01:04AM ● By Elisa Mercuro

Our brain function is important to the quality of life. Our brain allows us to learn new skills, enables our independence, our personality, likes and dislikes and the ability to remember our social connections. That is why when patients notice a decline in their brain’s ability to function, it is understandably very upsetting. Subjective cognitive decline can be an early sign of a progressive neurodegenerative condition such as Alzheimer’s disease. It is not uncommon for patients to have mild subjective symptoms of memory loss, “senior” moments. Often these types of symptoms are attributed to aging and ignored until it is not possible to ignore the impact on daily life.

By 2050, it is estimated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that the incidence of Alzheimer’s dementia is expected to triple in the U.S. population. That means many of us are future dementia patients. There is a growing body of evidence that lifestyle interventions now can help improve brain function and reduce the risk of developing this life-altering disease.

Top 5 Lifestyle Interventions to Improve Cognitive Function

Get Some Exercise We know that exercise increases your brain-derived nerve growth factor (BDNF). This improves neuroplasticity and can help keep the brain resilient and healthy. Aerobic exercise training is associated with modest improvements in attention and processing speed, executive function and memory. Exercise improves cognitive ability in patients with mild cognitive impairment. In a study of patients with subjective memory impairment, one group was given a physical activity program of 142 minutes per week and compared to a group of control subjects. There was modestly improved cognition relative to controls in older adults with memory impairment.

Manage Your Stress

We all have stress. It is how we perceive our stress that influences our hormones and our thinking. Think about the last time you were frazzled. Often our thinking is not as clear in times of stress. That is the short-term impact of cortisol, the stress hormone. Cortisol is the hormone in the body produced by our adrenal gland when our brain perceives stress. The effect of cortisol is magnified when stress hormones are in “flight or fight” sympathetic nervous system overdrive daily for many years. High levels of cortisol are associated with lower memory function and speed of information processing. Higher levels of plasma cortisol levels are also associated with greater age-related cognitive change. In one study, high cortisol at age 45 associated with poorer verbal memory and fluency at age 50. Daily activities to invoke the relaxation response such as meditation, prayer, mantra, exercise and social connection can help reduce daily stress.

Get Your Sleep

Poor quality and reduced quantity of sleep is associated with decreased brain function. There are sleep disorders (such as sleep apnea) where people do not get quality sleep and that can affect brain function. Sleep apnea is a problem where there are pauses in breathing during sleep and is diagnosed with a sleep study. Sleep quantity is also very important for our brain health. Sleep deprivation impairs learning and memory, decreases alertness and attention, decreases response time and impairs decision making. One study showed that commonly experienced levels of sleep deprivation depressed performance to a level equivalent to that produced by alcohol intoxication. Sleep debt has a neurobiological cost which can accumulate over time. Try to get at least seven hours of sleep every night for optimal brain performance. If you suspect a sleep disorder, such as sleep apnea, it is important to be tested through a sleep study.

Reduce Your Sugar

Sugar has permeated the standard American diet in many of our processed foods. Reducing refined sugar and refined grain products such as bread and pasta may be helpful in reducing the risk of developing dementia. There is a strong association between diabetes and dementia. Even in patients without diabetes, higher levels of blood glucose (sugar) increased risk of dementia. We know that it is the refined sugar and refined grain products and other added sweeteners that increase our blood glucose levels. Reducing these foods in the diet and exchanging them for fresh vegetables, fruits, proteins, healthy fats and whole grains (that have higher fiber content) can reduce elevation in blood glucose levels.

Reduce Your Toxins

There are a host of environmental toxins we are exposed to daily that can affect our cognition. Reducing your incoming toxins by watching your intake of foods that may contain heavy metals is important for protecting your brain as well as the rest of your body. Avoid eating large predatory fish (such as tuna and swordfish) that contain mercury. Investigate your personal care products on a website such as to make low toxicant choices. Choose organic meats, vegetables and fruits to reduce exposure to pesticides and herbicides. Supporting the elimination of toxins in your body is also important. Drink plenty of filtered water, and eating colorful antioxidant and phytonutrient containing fruits and vegetables support biotransformation and elimination.

Elisa Mercuro, DO, is a certified functional medicine physician at Groton Wellness. For more information, visit