As I get older, there are a few things I don’t want to get older. I want my joints to work so that I can get around. I want my eyes to work so that I can see. I want my brain to work so I can remember. But we have a problem. Getting older in America means you are going to get Alzheimer’s. If you live to age 90, you have something on the order of 50% risk of getting Alzheimer’s. America has a wave of dementia coming down the way, and we are all sitting on the beach. It’s an epidemic I don’t want to be part of. I’m really interested in how I can keep my brain healthy, so I want to start to explore the emerging science of brain health.
To make order of my exploration, I want to first talk about what we shouldn’t do. We now know there are just lots of things our brain would prefer we didn’t expose it to. First and foremost, the inflammation and irritation that comes along with cigarettes is just a disaster. The cells that protect each brain cell are called glial cells. They are sort of like baby sitters for brain cells, covering them, protecting them, shielding them. When they get mad and get inflamed, they damage the brain cell underneath. Cigarettes are right up there as noxious. Whew. A freebe. I don’t smoke. But there’s much more.
Mercury, lead, cadmium and arsenic make up a toxic handful of heavy metals that damage brain cells. We used to get lead exposure from gasoline. Now lead comes from older house-paint flaking off and materials made below our protection standards. (Toys from China. Lipsticks?) Even Nigerian chocolate (where 70% of the world’s cocoa is grown and where you can still buy leaded gasoline) has lead contamination. Arsenic comes off of the green wood we make our decks with. Yup, that nice kid’s playground wood: filled with arsenic.
Mercury is in coal so coal fired power plants put it in the air. And then there are old filings from the 60s and 70s with mercury content in them. Cadmium comes from cigarettes. We all have variable heavy metal exposure not seen before in human history. Some of it rises to the level of toxicity. I just measured my toxic levels. It’s not pretty.
But more common to all of us are everyday poisons like fake fats that create a low level of irritation and inflammation. Trans fats and saturated fats are everywhere. They don’t cause immediate noticeable damage but they do set off inflammation in our arteries and they make our membranes function less smoothly. If your arteries are inflamed your brain is too.
What about glutamate? There is all sorts of controversy about glutamate because of MSG. Monosodium glutamate came to America in the 1960s and its consumption continues to skyrocket. Sort of on the same order as our brain diseases of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and ALS. We like MSG because it makes food taste so good. The theory is that it causes excitatory cells to fire off, and fire and fire and fire, and then roll over and die. In experimental animal models exposed to the amount of MSG we have in our diet we can show the same sort of damage that shows up in Alzheimer’s. Not proven yet, but sure a lot of disturbing literature.
WWW. What will work for me. That’s the short starter list. Avoid cigarettes and smoking. Think about not using green pressure treated wood for surfaces you walk on. Read food labels and avoid MSG and all of its fake names like ‘hydrolyzed vegetable protein’. We didn’t even get to fake sweeteners. There is a lot you can do to help your brain. We’ll get to that.