Worrywarts and Fretters

September 4, 2012 in Diabetes Management, Food and the Brain, Health Claims, Mediterranean by Joyce Bunderson

I frequently complain about not being able to remember anything; which is why I have to make big long lists of all the things I need to do. Over the years, I’ve chalked up events where I forget something to having too many things to remember.  It frequently seems like I’m a juggler with too many balls in the air at one time. I have to admit that I give myself a fairly convincing argument that my memory is still somewhat functional and that I should not yet fret about dementia and Alzheimer’s. But in all honesty, if I’m 100 percent truthful, down deep there’s a little nagging fear of one day being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or dementia. My paternal grandmother did have it; it’s a really sad state, where a vibrant individual is robbed of who they are (and their memory of who you are too).

I remember when I was doing my Masters in Public Health at UCLA, and studying a little about Alzheimer’s and dementia, many people did not really know what it was. And certainly there’s still plenty to learn about it; but most people are familiar with the terms. It’s my observation that I’m not alone in fear of it, no matter how well it is tucked below the surface. My latest observation is that the food processors and pharmaceutical companies understand this fear very well and have focused on how that fear can be monetized.

Some of us are worrywarts (a person who frets about bad things that never (or rarely) happen); but to reduce actual worry one technique is to identify the risk, write it down and take some steps to decrease the risk. Now here’s the trick to quit fretting over dementia and Alzheimer’s – the science behind these growing plagues is really just trying to step over the threshold – the beginning. The scientists are working hard; but this is a really tough nut to crack. So the trick is to skip all the junk science that is primarily designed to lighten your pockets; while possibly lessening your fretting and worrywarting.

So if you want to do something, there are a few things that have been found to be related to better brain health; they’re listed in Brainmakers: Can popping pills preserve memory? By David Schardt.  The article is published in the September 2012 Nutrition Action Health Letter.  I think that the Center for Science in the Public Interest is so incredibly generous to publish the article in its entirety. If you go to the article you can read about what to do in a small column on the second page, called: HOW TO KEEP SHARP. It includes:

  • Avoid strokes.
  • Lose excess weight to prevent type 2 diabetes.
  • Cut saturated and trans fats.
  • Eat fish.
  • Move.

An important point to gain from the brief little column is that these recommendations are based upon reliable science. Now that is not the case for all the box tops, processed food packages, and supplement labels that claim to be able to preserve your memory and keep you mentally sharp. This list of things that work does not include brain exercises that might increase abilities to concentrate, to make better distinctions in hearing, to improve rapid decision-making, and memory. (See for example, the Posit Science offerings).  Dr. Grandpa has been following these for some years and thought we should mention them. Some of these are based on reputable and fairly recent brain science, and these relatively new programs have obtained promising research results.  But while the foundations of these computer-based exercises seem sound, the independent evidence of their actual effects and side effects is still accumulating.

The bulk of the Brainmakers article (linked above) is spent on the effectiveness of the brain and memory supplements that are marketed to help calm your worrywarting and fretting about dementia  – maybe helping the bottom line of their supplement or pharmaceutical company in a big way. The article does not find dependable evidence that the supplements actually help.

Today I’m not going to write about all the labels on foods pointing to the antioxidants (often omega-3s; vitamin E, vitamin C and beta-carotene (vitamin A); but you only have to walk down the cereals, packaged and canned food aisles to know what I’m talking about. Yes, the food processors are there with the pharmaceutical companies. They’re taking advantage of our fears and concerns.

My favorite line in Schardt’s article is: “For healthy people … taking a walk every day is probably better for your brain than taking an omega-3 supplement.” In the article, Schardt discusses the scientific evidence. If you want to save time just read the Bottom Lines and the Red lights. The point is that there’s no good proof that supplements are going to protect your brain; if you want to do something to protect yourself stay away from type 2 diabetes, overweight and do the three other recommendations bulleted above. Those are recommendations that can make a difference. Keep your eye on the better brain exercise programs, recalling the advice, which we strongly favor, that physical exercise definitely causes new neurons to grow, and patterned exercise helps the neurons link together into new action and thinking sequences. (See the book Spark to confirm this – it is 7th down the linked list). Lifelong learning is another recommendation that was not mentioned in the Nutrition Action article. It keeps us alert and postpones cognitive decline.

Until medical science figures out a way to prevent these horrible debilitating conditions, my advice is to eat a healthy Mediterranean-style diet, including fish; become physically active; don’t smoke; maintain healthy blood pressure; lose excess weight; and cut saturated and trans fats. And then lose the worrywart habit of mind.  It is possible-it helps to be or become a life-long learner, to include physical and mental exercises. Keep learning, moving, and eating yummy but healthy foods.