A Brain Surgeon’s Guide to Reduce the Risk of Dementia

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“When someone has dementia,” Dr. Henry Brodaty, a world-leading authority on aging and dementia, said, “the person’s brain shrinks to half its size.”

Though most people don’t have dementia later in life, it’s still among the top worries of most elderly people. It affects about 50 million people around the world, and based on the stats, there’ll be over 150 million people with dementia by 2050. But can we prevent dementia? Well, according to Dr. Rahul Jandial, a neurosurgeon, these easy-to-implement steps have proven to stave off dementia in his experience as a neurosurgeon.

The importance of skipping a meal

“When you wake up, consider skipping breakfast a couple of times a week,” Dr. Rahul said to Dr. Ragan a few minutes into their discussion. 

In neuroscience journals and from what has been found about its biology, intermittent fasting of about sixteen hours a couple of times a week will make your liver run out of its glucose reserves, after which it will burn fat until it starts using ketones. And ketones, as studies have shown, are not just fuel for the body, they greatly impact health and aging.

Here’s the thing: A brain is a hybrid machine. Meaning, it’s not all gas and it’s not all electric; it likes both. You don’t have to fast for days for your brain to start using ketone. If, for instance, you have dinner at 8:00 pm and it’s Friday today, consider having your next meal at midday on Saturday. As Dr. Rahul advised, the easiest to get to sixteen hours of intermittent fasting is to add your sleeping time.

Dr. Rahul himself fasts intermittently two days a week. And according to him, he might eat like everyone else (three times a day between 9:00 am and 5:00 pm) the previous day, after which he eats nothing except liquids, like water or tea, until midday the following day. “When you fast,” he explained to Dr. Ragan Chatter, “you foster the natural growth factors of your brain, this, in turn, helps your brain’s neurons to survive and grow.”

Choose the right food when it’s time to eat

“We don’t have a pill for Alzheimer’s,” Dr. Rahul said, “but we do have the MIND diet.” The MIND diet is an abbreviation for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay, and it mainly focuses on having green-leafed vegetables and fruits every day. Vegetables and fruits have a lot of antioxidants and chemicals like vitamin E which has been proven to help cope with aging.

Choosing plants, nuts, Berries is also part of the mind diet, and as dietitian Yu-Han Huang advised, it is a superfood that should be incorporated into your food at least twice per week for the best effect. Fatty fish, Dr. Rahul also emphasized, have Omega-3. And the Omega-3s in the fish slows cognitive decline and reduces oxidative stress in the brain.

How to keep the brain irrigated

Now you are at lunchtime, you’ve chosen the Mediterranean diet which has more plants and less meat, the next great thing you can do for your brain is exercise. As Dr. Rahul said to Tom Bilyeu on Impact Theory, “the brain likes exercise because it is flesh.” Not exercising is like clogging the plumbing to your garden, which makes the swaths of your garden wither.

When people have strokes it’s because blood flow is not getting into their brain. That’s how important it is for the brain to get irrigated, and exercise does this quite effectively. When the brain exercises, it showers itself. It’s not like the thigh muscles release a healthy brain chemical that swims up there, it’s got its own pharmacy. When you give it the right behavior and interaction — like exercising, fasting, eating the right food — it will reward itself.

Exercising keeps the plumbing (blood flow) open to the flesh of the brain and releases molecules that serve as Miracle-Grow for the brain. It doesn’t have to be vigorous exercise. As Dr. Rahul put it, “Just the postural elements of standing is a first step. Next, you can decide to walk instead of always taking your car around, then you can proceed to using the stairs instead of always taking the elevator.”

Keep your brain active

Now that you’ve exercised, skipped a meal in the morning, and probably eaten Mediterranean food at midday, to close your day, Dr. Rahul recommends you find a way to stimulate your brain. As he said…, “I like to read something completely unfamiliar. I have a stack of old magazines and I just flip through them sometimes just to find new content for my mind.”

Here’s the thing: Since the brain is a thinking flesh, in addition to wanting good blood flow and a good diet, it also wants to think. If you asked Usain Bolt “how do you get your thigh muscles stronger?” He probably tells you to run, or take the stairs most times. In the same way, if you want to get your brain to be healthier and active, you have to think.

Evolutionarily, humans love what’s familiar. One of the survival strategies of the brain is to use data from previous experiences to quickly form a mental map on the right action to take in certain situations. But too much familiarity dulls the brain. Flip through something different on your phone, solve a puzzle, develop a new skill. It might be something like learning a new language or a musical instrument. Do anything unusual that can keep the brain from falling into a rut.

However, understand that everybody’s level of challenge is different. We don’t all have the same careers, so we don’t all have to challenge our brains the same way. We can’t all do the same puzzles. The point here is that you get out of your mind’s comfort zone.

What matters is the act of learning itself. As Dr. Rahul puts it, learning something new makes your brain say “I’ve got to pull from different pathways, I’ve got to get to different corners of my mind. It’s an energy-consuming activity and that’s why it engages the greatest corners and recesses of the mind.” In other words, a good way to stave off dementia is to make the brain efficient by keeping it from falling into a rut.

Find happiness

“We know that people who have mental health issues or people who are depressed… are brain injured. So if it’s within your power to be happier, to pursue relationships or crafts that make you happy, then that will probably be the best thing for your brain.” — Dr. Rahul Jandial

In a study published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry, it was discovered that people who remain unmarried have a 24% higher chance of having dementia at old age compared to married couples.

When you have people you care about around you, they either encourage you to build good habits or become the motivation behind your good habits. Furthermore, and as research has also confirmed, good social interaction helps build cognitive reserve. Meaning, with good relationships around you, you’ll be able to function longer with a disease like Alzheimer’s before any symptoms.

The upsides of having good relationships cannot be overemphasized. There is more than enough research on the internet that shows that good relationships just make us better in every way. It’s like the natural remedy to most of our mental and emotional problems, and it’s no wonder why.

Evolutionarily, it’s human nature to want to bond with others. We are filled with a sense of meaning and completeness when we know that our lives mean something to someone else — a feeling that has a huge impact on every aspect of our wellbeing.


Final thoughts

Part of the risk of dementia can be accounted for by environmental factors that we all can do something about right now. Can we eradicate it? Well, just like vaccines were used to eradicate smallpox, there are plenty of trials on using vaccines against Alzheimer’s disease that have not succeeded yet.

But not being able to eradicate it yet, doesn’t mean we can’t prevent it or delay its onset. Hence, our best bet against dementia is our lifestyle. Eating well, exercising, and training your brain may not seem like much in the short term. But like many habits, its accumulation has a massive impact on our wellbeing.


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