Every day we’re inundated with information about keeping healthy— but how much of it can you rely on?
In the case of maintaining brain health and reducing the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, at least, we know there’s a lot of misconceptions. To cut through all the grey matter of some popular myths, we spoke with Dr. Carol Greenwood, professor emeritus of nutritional sciences at University of Toronto and senior scientist at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute, as well as Christene Gordon, provincial client services lead for the Alzheimer’s Society of Alberta and Northwest Territories. Read on as we set the record straight.
MYTH: My brain-training app will keep my brain agile.
TRUTH: Despite their popularity, brain-training apps and games might not improve your cognitive function or IQ as much as developers claim. “The studies say these games are not a whole lot of use,” explains Christene. “In fact, there’s new research that suggests we’re starting to lose some aspects of working memory by relying on our phones too much. To combat this, I’d recommend doing small things like writing a grocery list but leaving it in the car while you shop—simple things that can help build new neural pathways and strengthen working memory.”
MYTH: You can't teach old brains new tricks.
TRUTH: Brain function is elastic well into our later years, and to keep it that way, consider trying something that takes you out of your comfort zone to help continue to build those new neural pathways. Learning a different language or how to play a musical instrument are worthy pursuits for strengthening your noggin’s adaptability but you can also get results with tiny changes to your routine, like taking a different route to work or brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand. “Even the effort of getting dressed in the dark uses completely different brain cells (touch rather than sight),” says Christene.
MYTH: Brain shrinkage...it's a joke, right?
TRUTH: “We’re constantly replacing cells that naturally die off with new ones; this process happens in all parts of our body, including the brain, where it’s called neurogenesis,” explains Dr. Greenwood. “However, if not enough new cells are being generated, then the brain is ultimately going to shrink.” Take heart, though. Physical activity can directly stimulate neurogenesis as well as increase the amount of oxygen that gets to your brain. “Even walking with an increased heart rate for just 20 minutes a day will be beneficial,” says Christene.
MYTH: The brain benefits of sleep are overrated.
TRUTH: Our sleep patterns change as we age, it’s true, but it’s still important to get the recommended seven to nine hours of restful slumber every night. Operating on too little sleep can result in impairment that’s equivalent to drinking two alcoholic beverages, and impedes the glymphatic system (essentially your brain’s overnight janitor), which works to clear out metabolic waste when we’re in dreamland.
MYTH: I have to be vegan to have a healthier brain.
TRUTH: Don't sweat it, meat lovers! Though Canada's Food Guide suggests moving to a more plant-based diet, you don't need to forgo meat and animals byproducts altogether—minimizing or moderating your intake will suffice. The golden rule: What’s good for your heart is good for your brain. Meaning, adopting a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and healthy fats and limiting your red meat, sugar, alcohol and processed food intake can help stave off the big risk factors for cognitive decline, including high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes.
MYTH: Social networking is for teens.
TRUTH: We know that regular exercise and a plant-focused diet improve memory, cognition and overall brain fitness, but maintaining and building relationships is also key to healthy aging, says Christene. “Many people don’t realize that social isolation is a risk factor for dementia. When you’re secluded, you’re not giving your brain an opportunity to learn new things and engage in meaningful conversation and debate.” So go ahead and plan that party, coffee date or walk in the park with your besties... and make it happen.
MYTH: Alzheimer's is an old person's disease.
TRUTH: While age is the number one risk factor for Alzheimer’s, genetics can also play a role—especially in young-onset types of the disease—but you can reduce your chances of developing it. It’s never too late to implement healthy habits, according to Dr. Greenwood: “We’re seeing benefits from lifestyle changes in people in their mid-seventies!” According to a 2010 study published in medical journal Hypertension, participants (people above the age of 50 who had recently changed their diets and improved their exercise habits) performed as if they were nine years younger on reading and writing tests after just four months of their new routines.
1.4 MILLION CANADIANS
are expected to develop Alzheimer’s or dementia by the year 2031, almost three-quarters of them women.
MODERATE ALCOHOL CONSUMPTION
(one drink a day) is fine. In fact, in moderation, the antioxidant resveratrol that’s found in red wine may actually help protect the brain and nerve cells.
of Canada recommends following a Mediterranean diet, rich in fruits and vegetables, beans and nuts, healthy grains, fish and olive oil, which has been associated with lower levels of inflammation and oxidative stress, both detrimental to the brain and other organs.
THE BRAIN MAKES UP TWO PERCENT
of our body weight but receives 20 percent of our blood supply.