“Of all the organs of the body,” writes Dr. Lisa Marconi in her book “The XX Brain”, “the brain is the one most vulnerable to the ravages of a poor diet.”
In Part 1 of this discovery of women and Alzheimer’s, there is plenty of bad news — 2 out of every 3 people with Alzheimer’s are women, regardless of age — and good news, there are things we can do to lessen our chances of succumbing to the disease.
In Part 1, I also promised to cover specific lifestyle changes that reduce your risk of becoming a dementia or Alzheimer’s patient, trustworthy gene testing companies, and which, if any, supplements actually work.
So, let’s get started…
If lifestyle is up to 80% responsible for living disease-free as we age, (and it is for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, some cancers, and now Alzheimer’s,) then we have to start with food.
Why not sleep or exercise? Because the need for food is ongoing and is the foundation for sleep and energy to move or exercise.
If our brains are different than men’s, our diet must also be, in order to fuel our energy-hungry brain and maintain a healthy weight.
Our aging female bodies are programmed to store fat
As hormone levels begin to decline, around forty, our metabolism slows and our ability to process insulin is less efficient. Low estrogen is messing with our brains’ signals to burn carbs and regulate where our fat gets stored. Can you say muffin top? Jelly belly?
Why, oh why, is this so? “Because”, writes Dr. Mosconi, “adipose tissue produces estrone, the backup form of estrogen for post-menopausal women.”
It’s a good/bad problem, which means we over-50 girls have to learn to maximize nutrition intake and minimize the kinds of foods our bodies are no longer efficient at using vs. storing.
This in turn will protect our grey matter.
The Women’s Health Initiative Studies
Initially this study, begun in the early 90s, was designed to test the safety and efficacy of Hormone Replacement in menopausal women. It is ongoing and has expanded to include nutrition and dietary effects of different diets, supplements, exercise, and more.
The WHI-DM, or Women’s Health Initiative Dietary Intervention study, set out to test the hypothesis that a low-fat diet would lower rates of breast cancer, heart disease, stroke, colorectal cancer, and obesity.
48,000+ women were enrolled. 40% were put on a low-fat diet. Fat was limited to 20% of calories. The study followed these women for 8 years.
Far from finding that fat was evil, (their hypothesis) the study showed that the women on the low-fat diet had no increased resistance to cancer or heart disease. Nor did they lose significant weight.
BUT, the study had flaws, including the high amount of carbohydrates — 6 servings per day — included in the low-fat program. As well, many low-fat foods of that era were high in sugar.
The bottom line here is that choosing to eat a low-fat diet isn’t a guarantee that you’ll stay healthy. And fat is critical for hormone balance and metabolism. So don’t fear fat, just keep them healthy.
How to Eat
There are 3 diets most frequently cited for longevity and especially brain health.
If you’re not familiar with this popular way of eating, think salmon, sardines, mackerel, and other oily fish, vegetables raw and cooked, olive oil, herbs, beans, whole grains, nuts, poultry, diary. Red meat is an occasional thing and processed foods are not on the list of foods to include.
Similar to the above food categories but very small portions of fats, include commercial dressings, starches, candy. Emphasis on salt reduction so processed and canned foods would likely not make the cut.
This plan combines the Mediterranean with red meat a few times a week and TADA! A glass of wine per day. In the fruit category only blueberries are on the list.
All of these eating programs keep protein to a minimum, which is fine if you are eating enough for your age, activity level, and body weight.
Bottom line: stay away from processed foods, lunch meats, fast food, jumbo large lattes, and use convenience foods like frozen meals — even Organic ones — infrequently. They are light on satiety (little fiber or texture) and can be heavy on salt.
Here’s a breakdown of recommended daily nutrients: 20/20/40
20% healthy fat
20% lean, clean protein
40% complex carbohydrates — mostly from beans and vegetables.
Studies show that calorie restriction can reduce cellular aging and boost cognitive power in aging adults. It’s also a great way to lose weight if you need to. Despite all the body positivity proponents, (and I am all for loving the skin you are in) excess weight promotes insulin resistance, diabetes, and heart problems in many women.
How to eat less other than just pushing the plate away now and then?
You can also adopt the Japanese philosophy of hara hachi bu, or almost full. Women centenarians on Okinawa eat to 80% full. This is said to be one of their longevity secrets.
In addition to eating, sleeping, and getting movement and exercise, supplements can be a way to boost levels of key vitamins and minerals we don’t get enough of. This could be because of our diet, the soil our food grows in being depleted of nutrients, extra stress, or medications eating up stores of important vitamins and minerals.
In order to know if you need to supplement, it’s best to get blood tests done to see your starting levels. Not a fan of needles? In the sentence above I mentioned 4 places to look for an indication that you might need to supplement. I’m planning another 2-parter on this subject. For now, we’ll stick to this in light of our brain health.
Can supplements prevent dementia or Alzheimer’s?
To date there is no proof that any designer brain supplements are worth the high cost. Even those we’ve been hearing about for years, (looking at you Ginko Biloba,) have not given researchers enough to warrant recommending them.
There are some basic vitamins that most of the Alzheimer’s and dementia organizations recommend. The brain docs whose books I’ve read concur.
There is no dosing information here because it would be unsafe for me to recommend a one-size-fits-all readers dosage.
- B vitamins, especially B6, B12, folate.
- Omega-3s — these may interfere with blood thinners. Check with your doc before starting
- C and E — Especially important for smokers and ex-smokers, those exposed to environmental toxins, and those with high CRP levels.
- Ginko Biloba — but Greg, you said it wasn’t proven to help. Indeed, I did. However, some trials in progress have shown improvement in cognition and memory. Studies and human trials continue but a few of the docs I have read include it in their recommendations. However, if you have a history of stroke or have had a concussion, def speak to a doctor before taking this.
I’m adding one supplement, really a precursor hormone, because of its powerful health benefits for women at any age, Vitamin D. Here’s an article I wrote awhile back that will tell you why I’m including it. All of the science is relevant today.
The Exercise Prescription
Good news for the perimenopause and menopausal women reading. When it comes to this transition and beyond, less exertion proves to be more. As our energy levels change, hormones prove tricky to navigate, moderate exercise — you glisten rather than sweat, you can carry on a conversation but you’re breathy — will contribute to healthy aging and disease prevention.
If you love high-intensity activities like spin or TRX, go for it. Don’t feel badly though if you’d rather go through childbirth than do hardcore exercise. The bottom line is to do something consistently that works with your body type, your energy levels, and your goals.
Your brain’s bath time
You likely are already tired (pun intended) of hearing about the importance of getting quality sleep. But are you getting any? It’s now or never time to figure out how to sleep well if you aren’t. Why? Because the brain gets washed when we are in deep sleep.
What gets washed away is debris-ish stuff that impairs memory and brain function. Of course, this isn’t the only reason, but it’s a biggy.
If sleep alludes you, get to work reading for ideas to help, including my free Power of 5 email training. Day 4 is on sleep and how to get more. You might even find an idea you haven’t tried.
Tests for Alzheimer’s
The genetic test for APOE status should be done by a reputable lab in conjunction with a genetic expert or your doctor, if you are consulting one, because of a family history of Alzheimer’s.
Using home test kits or popular sites like 23andMe means no guidance on how to process the information and next steps. There is also a higher chance of testing errors.
A clinical trial is the best way to get the latest, safest, and most in-depth testing and information if you feel you are at risk for Alzheimer’s. Remember what was revealed in this 2-part series — women’s brains are different than men’s so when looking for a clinical trial, look for those that are studying women.
Here is a link to trials at Weil Cornell in NYC: https://neurology.weill.cornell.edu/research/clinical-trials
If you know you have a familial risk for any of the dementias, get a good doctor or practitioner on board so you can get baseline assessments done. As different as we are XX or XY, we have one precious life, and our brain makes enjoyment possible. And a few other things like respiration, digestion, and on and on through the systems that keep us alive.
If you’ve never thought of your brain health when it comes to self-care, maybe now is a good time to start.
PS: If you want to know what tests to get after 50, why get them, what the numbers mean, and which ones to skip, I’ve got an e-book that’s got all the basics and a few extras for those who love to test, not guess. You can grab it here: