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Ounce of Prevention | Dementia and brain shrinkage

Published:Monday | October 24, 2016 | 12:00 AM
Human brain

An epidemic is looming of a condition called dementia in which there is a pathological decline in mental function. Researchers estimate that the number of people suffering from it worldwide will double within the next two decades.

The word dementia literally means 'without a mind' and this problem occurs in several nervous system disorders. The infamous Alzheimer's disease (AD) has become the most common cause of dementia.

Dementia impairs how one thinks and how the brain functions and limits the sufferer's ability to perform the normal activities of daily life. Memory, particularly short-term, personality, reason and logic suffer particularly. Because there are many other causes of dementia, a careful medial evaluation is necessary before AD can be diagnosed.




The brain is made of billions of nerve cells called neurons. In AD, these cells are rapidly destroyed and the brain shrinks. Normal ageing causes the brain to shrink about 0.5 per cent each year after age 60. In individuals with dementia, the brain can shrink five times faster. Researchers believe that slowing this loss of brain cells may prevent dementia. While the experts struggle to understand this very difficult problem, there are several things that you can do to help protect yourself from dementia.

There is a very strong correlation between diabetes and AD as diabetics are at high risk for AD. Some specialists have even referred to AD as 'brain diabetes'. An underactive thyroid as well as certain prescription medications also increases the risk of dementia.

DIET: Many studies show a correlation between diet and brain health. A focus on a variety of vegetables, fruit and healthy forms of protein like fish, beans, nuts and seeds, while lowering sugar, starch and unhealthy fats, is ideal.

Coconut oil, green tea and curry have special benefits for the brain. Several supplements like multivitamins, minerals, herbs and antioxidants are also helpful.

FISH OIL: The brain's over 100 billion neurons are made mostly of fat, and the essential omega 3 fatty acids account for eight per cent of the total weight of the brain. In particular, DHA, and to a lesser extent, EPA found in fish oils are vital for healthy brain function and also protect the brain from damage and inflammation. Research demonstrates that high intake of omega 3 fatty acids reduces brain shrinkage and increases brain volume. They virtually decrease brain ageing.

VITAMINS: Scientists at Oxford University in England have reported that large doses of B vitamins can halve brain shrinkage in elderly people with memory problems and may slow their progression toward dementia.

Another study revealed that people with higher vitamin B12 levels were six times less likely to have brain shrinkage compared to those who had lower blood levels of the vitamin. This is particularly significant as elderly people are prone to low levels of vitamin B12.

The antioxidants vitamin A, C, E and selenium, as well as vitamin D, all support brain health.

HERBS: Herbs like ginkgo biloba and pycnogenol increases blood flow to the brain, while others like turmeric, ginger, pomegranate, garlic and green tea help prevent inflammation.

PHYSICAL EXERCISE: Older adults, as well as children, who are more physically fit, tend to have better memory than their less fit counterparts. The part of the brain responsible for memory, the hippocampus, is larger and shrinks less in people who exercise regularly.

In one study, unfit people with early AD had four times more brain shrinkage than those who were more physically fit. Moderate physical activity, even a 30-minute daily stroll may diminish the risk for dementia among the elderly, according to another study published in the Medical Journal of Neurology.

BE MENTALLY ACTIVE: Individuals who engage in mental and intellectual activities like reading, playing board games, completing crossword puzzles, learning new languages, solving riddles, or playing musical instruments show a reduced risk for AD. Regular social interaction, love and affection are also necessary to provide positive emotional stimulation.

AVOID BRAIN TOXINS: Many common substances are known to be toxic to the brain. The long list includes alcohol, cigarette smoke, aspartame, industrial chemicals, heavy metals like mercury, lead and aluminium, solvents found in glues, paints, thinners and new carpets and furnishings, pesticides, and the gas carbon monoxide.

Some individuals may actually have allergic reactions in their brain to some chemicals that do not seem to affect others. Reduce your exposure to these agents.

- You may email Dr Vendryes at or listen to An Ounce of Prevention on POWER106FM on Fridays at 8:15 p.m. Visit for details on his books and articles.