What is Cognitive Impairment?
Your brain, like the rest of your body, changes as you grow older. Many people notice gradually increasing forgetfulness as they age. Cognitive impairment is when a person has trouble remembering, learning new things, concentrating, or making decisions that affect their everyday life. Cognitive impairment ranges from mild to severe. With mild impairment, people may begin to notice changes in cognitive functions, but still be able to do their everyday activities.
There’s no single cause of cognitive impairment, however, a growing body of research is linking it with chronic brain inflammation (3). The inflammation we’re talking about isn’t the type that makes your brain swollen, red, or sore—it’s inflammation on a microscopic level. Brain fog is a hallmark symptom of brain inflammation. The inflammation slows down communication between neurons. This is what causes you to feel foggy, dull, and tired.
Common causes of brain inflammation include chronic inflammation in the body, leaky gut, high blood sugar and diabetes, hormonal imbalances, thyroid problems, food intolerances (gluten), and stress. It is more common than people realize. We should constantly strive to reduce inflammation because it can significantly improve our quality of life (9).
“Lifestyle Modification” is the Most Important First Step
We have the ability to reduce inflammation and slow cognitive impairment through lifestyle modification. Lifestyle modification involves altering long-term habits, typically of eating or physical activity, and maintaining the new behavior for months or years. This means eating healthier, maintaining physical exercise, getting enough sleep, and taking specific supplements to avoid nutritional deficiencies. These tips will make sure our brains continue to work optimally and we potentially reduce the chance of cognitive impairment or the development of neurological disease (4).
Lifestyle factors that have been linked to an increased risk of cognitive impairment include:
- Lack of physical exercise
- Inflammation in the brain and body
- Long-term stress
- Nutrient deficiencies
- Sleep deprivation
- Infrequent participation in mentally or socially stimulating activities
What Steps Can You Take to Protect Your Brain?
There are many steps you can take to prevent cognitive decline and ensure optimal brain function. Studies suggest that healthy choices promote good overall health and may play an important role in good cognitive health:
Build a healthy lifestyle
Poor nutrition and lack of physical exercise are some of the root causes of many diseases (2). Nine of the top ten causes of death are influenced by lifestyle choices. Eating the foods you know you should eat and getting enough physical activity will not only improve your mood and cognitive health, but they will also make sure your metabolic health is optimal. Regular physical exercise has known benefits for heart health and may also help prevent or slow cognitive decline.
Practice a low carbohydrate or ketogenic diet
Carbohydrates, particularly excess carbohydrates in the form of refined sugar, have been linked to chronic inflammation (11). This is because the consumption of carbohydrates promotes an insulin response, which can cause an increase in markers of inflammation (10). Therefore, reducing carbohydrate intake can be a great way to reduce inflammation. In addition, ketogenic dieting (very low carbohydrate, high fat) has been shown to reduce inflammation (5).
Fast for part of your day
In addition to low carbohydrate or ketogenic dieting, fasting is a great way to reduce inflammation (6). Fasting increases autophagy, which is a way of saying that your body recycles old cell parts and uses them to make new, undamaged cells stronger. Fasting can also increase growth factors in the brain that repair, maintain, and make new nerve cells (7). Lastly, fasting will increase serotonin in the brain; a neurotransmitter responsible for regulating mood and improving insulin sensitivity (8). Therefore, fasting will not only protect your brain by increasing brain growth factors, but it can also improve your sensitivity to carbohydrates.
Manage your stress
Stress, especially chronic stress, can cause inflammation in the brain (1). This can cause a dysregulation of neurotransmitters and hormones leading to depression, poor mood, and lower feelings of well-being. Therefore, it is important to manage the stresses in your life to ensure healthier cognitive function.
The brain is by far our most precious organ. Cognitive health is a complex, multi-faceted subject. We have the ability to take charge of our brain health, reduce brain inflammation and prevent cognitive impairment through lifestyle modification and adopting healthy behaviors. It’s normal to feel overwhelmed with all the healthy changes you know you need to make, but you don’t need to make these changes all at once… When deciding which healthy habits to focus on, start by choosing just one that’s important to you.
- Black, P. H., & Berman, A. S. (2002). Stress and inflammation. In Cytokines (pp. 123-140). CRC Press.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2017, Oct 30). Leading Causes of Death in Rural America. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/ruralhealth/cause-of-death.html
- Dantzer, R. (2018). Psychiatric Disorders and Inflammation. Inflammation: From Molecular and Cellular Mechanisms to the Clinic, 767-784.
- Deary, I. J., Corley, J., Gow, A. J., Harris, S. E., Houlihan, L. M., Marioni, R. E., … & Starr, J. M. (2009). Age-associated cognitive decline. British medical bulletin, 92(1), 135-152.
- Dupuis, N., Curatolo, N., Benoist, J. F., & Auvin, S. (2015). Ketogenic diet exhibits anti‐inflammatory properties. Epilepsia, 56(7), e95-e98.
- Mattson, M. P. (2003). Gene–diet interactions in brain aging and neurodegenerative disorders. Annals of Internal Medicine, 139(5_Part_2), 441-444.
- Mattson, M. P., Maudsley, S., & Martin, B. (2004). BDNF and 5-HT: a dynamic duo in age-related neuronal plasticity and neurodegenerative disorders. Trends in neurosciences, 27(10), 589-594.
- Michalsen, A. (2010). Prolonged fasting as a method of mood enhancement in chronic pain syndromes: a review of clinical evidence and mechanisms. Current pain and headache reports, 14(2), 80-87.
- Rosano, C., Marsland, A. L., & Gianaros, P. J. (2012). Maintaining brain health by monitoring inflammatory processes: a mechanism to promote successful aging. Aging and disease, 3(1), 16.
- Spreadbury, I. (2012). Comparison with ancestral diets suggests dense acellular carbohydrates promote an inflammatory microbiota, and may be the primary dietary cause of leptin resistance and obesity. Diabetes, metabolic syndrome and obesity: targets and therapy, 5, 175.
- Vitale, M., Masulli, M., Rivellese, A. A., Babini, A. C., Boemi, M., Bonora, E., … & Clemente, G. (2016). Influence of dietary fat and carbohydrates proportions on plasma lipids, glucose control and low-grade inflammation in patients with type 2 diabetes—The TOSCA. IT Study. European journal of nutrition, 55(4), 1645-1651.