Updated: Dec 12, 2022
by Mara Soloway ISW Columnist
Looking ahead from the vantage point of my 60s, I feel like I’m staring down the Great Cognitive Unknown. My mom, Joanne Timms Soloway, and mother-in-law, Dorothy Rodwell Arvidson, spent their later years with dementia. Like everyone, I want my cognitive powers to remain viable. I want to rock my 70s, I want to be vibrant as possible in my 80s and beyond.
While I eat fairly healthily and walk every day, I’ve been feeling the need to reevaluate to make sure I’m on the right track.
I had seen Lisa Mosconi, Ph.D., INHC being interviewed on several YouTube videos and had seen Kristin Willeumier, Ph.D.’s Biohack Your Brain at Barnes and Noble. Both are brain researchers. Decision made – I would find out what they had to say.
I learned a lot of useful information that I share with you below. Caveat: because I’m a layperson, these summaries are based on my understanding. Please do further research on your own—including talking to your doctor or a nutritionist-- to get all the details.
Lisa Mosconi, Ph.D., INHC
Dr. Mosconi is an associate professor of Neuroscience at Weill Cornell Medicine (WCM), and the director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Program at WCM/New York-Presbyterian Hospital. The program includes the Women’s Brain Initiative, the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic, and the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinical Trials Unit.
Brain Food: The Surprising Science of Eating for Cognitive Power (published in 2018)
Mosconi is touted as being the first health professional to address women’s brain health as an essential component of our lifelong health. As she began researching whether the higher rate of women with Alzheimer’s Disease is due to genetics, she met resistance from those who thought it has to do with old age. The prevailing thought has been that women live longer than men; ergo, the higher rate is age-related. End of the story, the old guard insisted.
As Mosconi points out, women do live longer than men, but only by a few years. Her research has found that dementia’s onset starts long before our later years. Women who are 60 years old are almost twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s than breast cancer. In fact, women make up two-thirds of those suffering from Alzheimer’s.
Based on my understanding, these are some of Mosconi’s findings supporting Alzheimer’s is primarily a woman’s disease, the onset of which begins with perimenopause:
Each of the X chromosomes that make up the female XX genotype has 1,098 genes. The Y chromosome in the male’s XY genotype has 78 genes. Female extra genetic material is important for our role in reproduction and for our brain function, among other aspects.
The health of reproductive organs is crucial for brain health and vice versa. The interaction is mediated by our hormones, which differ between genders.
Our brains age differently. Men have a fairly linear aging process because their testosterone doesn’t run out until late in life, while women have what Mosconi calls “step ladder changes” with estrogen hormones starting to fade in mid-life.
The three Ps – puberty, pregnancy, and perimenopause – are neuro-endocrine transition stages. In puberty and pregnancy, our brains have many more estrogen hormones than during menopause and beyond. When the level of estrogens is high, the brain is “supercharged,” Mosconi says.
The loss of estrogen hormones in perimenopause is the start of the decline in our brain health. The old school thinking was menopause was based in our ovaries but Mosconi shows that symptoms of menopause such as hot flashes and insomnia begin in the brain – they are neurological symptoms.
Menopause impacts cognitive health. When estrogen stops fueling brain cells, neurons age faster, which can lead to the production of amyloid plaques.
The average age worldwide for the start of menopause is the early 40s, making it possible for women to live 30 to 40 or even 50 years beyond this timeframe without the brain- and health-protecting benefits of estrogen hormones.
Both of Mosconi’s books discuss the connection between diet, nutrition, and exercise in preventing cognitive decline. It’s worth reading the biology behind all these processes. She generally recommends a Mediterranean-style diet while adding these specific actions that induce brain health:
The brain is 80 percent water. You must drink sufficient water to keep it healthy.
Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) mirror brain composition. They come in numerous forms: fish roe, and fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, and herring. Plant-based PUFA options are chia seeds, flaxseed, and oil, seaweed, walnuts, hemp seeds, almonds, peas, and edamame.
Eating foods with phytoestrogens – such as tofu, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables – give the body somewhat of an estrogen boost.
Bottom line: women should be concerned about Alzheimer’s. We should live and eat as healthily as possible as early in our lives as possible. Read Mosconi's books, watch YouTube videos or listen to podcasts of her interviews – your long-term health will thank you for it.
Kristin Willeumier, Ph.D.
Dr. Willeumier is currently a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of Tate Technology, LLC, a sports safety and technology licensing company, and Simpler Health, a weight loss and lifestyle education program. From 2009-2016, she served as the director of neuroimaging research for the Amen Clinics, where she led the efforts in utilizing imaging technologies to understand the neurobiological signatures underlying psychiatric disorders.
Willeumier offers more wisdom on how to take better care of your brain, noting that the science of how to optimize cognitive health is new and evolving. “We’ve only recently learned that diet, exercise, mindfulness, sleep, and stress regulation play a big role in cognitive function – and in different ways, then they do in heart health,” she writes.
Her tone is straightforward – she describes the risks of memory loss and dementia but has a wealth of details about how we can, as she says, “biohack” our brains. Willeumier calls the brain a living, oxygen-consuming supercomputer. While it is complex, everyone has the potential to physiologically change her or his brain. And there’s no time like the present to get started.
Her work in the Amen Brain Clinic with NFL players suffering from brain trauma and poor blood flow to the brain showed their brain health improved dramatically with lifestyle and dietary changes.
Willeumier describes the three most significant ways we can change our brains:
1. You can grow new blood cells at any age through neurogenesis.
Neural networks can change paths, and be redirected or destroyed by lifestyle habits. Still, they can also be created by learning novel information, adopting certain habits (see the accompanying table of 10 ways to change your brain), and challenging the brain in other ways.
2. It’s all about blood flow. Willeumier calls increased blood flow to the brain “…one of the most powerful ways to biohack your brain. It will make you smarter and sharper, and it will protect your cognitive function as you age.”
Better cerebral circulation: people who exercise have dramatically more blood flow and less damage in their brains than those who don’t, and their blood vessels appear younger.
The best exercises for cerebral circulation are sustained aerobic exercise that elevates your heart rate plus resistance for muscle building.
Aerobic exercise also nets your new brain cells, increasing the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain responsible for memory and learning; gray matter, which improves the brain’s overall ability to think, reason, and remember; and white matter, which is responsible for sending nerve signals along the spinal cord.
3. Calming your sympathetic nervous system can change your brain overnight.
The usual recommendations are a good night's sleep, meditation, yoga, and deep breathing.
Thoughts change your brain. Be optimistic, and think positive thoughts over negative ones.
Diet is covered at length in her book. She also talks about valuable supplements, hydration (the best types of water for your brain are slightly more alkaline than acidic; add lemons or other fruits), reducing stress especially post-pandemic, and the right type of brain games (including ones that improve aspects of cognitive power, including boosting memory, problem-solving, creativity and even intelligence--all of which spur neurogenesis).
She also advises having comprehensive bloodwork and discussing the results with your physician so you both have a baseline to start your efforts. You can’t change what you don’t measure.
This book is packed with advice that will take a while to work through. For example, you have to decide if you are going to take every supplement she recommends. But don’t let the information overload stop you – Willeumier reiterates how effective even just exercising and eating well consistently is for you. Get started with those baby steps so your brain doesn’t get left behind.
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Tell me what you think. What are you doing these days to improve your health? Which medical professionals do you recommend reading and listening to?