The Factors of Cognitive Health
Cognitive health is brain health. It focuses on the retention of cognitive abilities like memory, motor skills and sensory stimuli that allows people to function as they age. This includes staving off mentally incapacitating diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s.
As one can imagine, the factors associated with maintaining brain health are innumerate, as are the remedies. Of course, the science isn’t settled on brain health, but not for want of trying. As the largest age cohort enters retirement age, and with the various disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic psychologically lingering, it’s no wonder cognitive health is a primary wellness concern today. Nutrition, sleep, stress regulation and physical activity are all accessible methods of achieving cognitive health.
Many over-the-counter supplements and prescription drugs claim to benefit brain health. So, what measures do people take to maintain their brain health, and what does scientific research say about them?
Vitamins and Minerals
Omega-fatty acids are present in fish oil. Fatty acids reduce inflammation and increase brain function. For example, one study discovered that out of a sample of 1264 dementia-free patients over 80, no fatty acids were associated with the 233 participants who were diagnosed with dementia later. However, higher concentrations of the fatty acid Eicosapentaenoic Acid were found to be associated with a lower risk of contracting dementia and Alzheimer’s among those who don’t carry the gene that predicts contracting either dementia or Alzheimer’s (1).
It is possible that taking these supplements decreases the likelihood of someone contracting these diseases so long as that person doesn’t have the gene, or genes, that predict being diagnosed with them.
Another choice supplement for those looking to boost their memory is Gingko Biloba. It’s an antioxidant and cognitive aid with anti-inflammatory capabilities that relieve hypertension. It can also be used to treat anxiety and schizophrenia. Though it’s been used for centuries for various medicinal purposes, there’s no conclusive evidence to suggest that Gingko Biloba helps avoid contracting dementia or Alzheimer’s.
So, while these supplements are both far from a cure for degenerative disease, or a definitive defence against brain health, they might be effective in so far as someone has a deficiency in antioxidants, or perhaps they function as a placebo. Regardless, making a habit of taking regular vitamins is bound to contribute to overall health potential, especially considering their importance in maintaining the immune system and promoting cell repair. Greens products are popular supplements that are often rich in essential vitamins.
Modern research has also shown a significant relationship between cognitive health and our diet. Bacteria outnumber the cells in the human body, and more than 95% of them are found in the gut. When these bacteria undergo metabolic processes, they create a litany of compounds that send signals via cells, nerves or blood to the brain that are sometimes consequentially negligible, beneficial, detrimental, or all three (2). For example, bacteria can either increase or decrease the amount and availability of the hormone dopamine, which is consequential for our mental health as it mediates the brain’s reward system (2).
Regulating the types of foods consumed directly affects the availability of this substance to the brain which has consequences for behaviour. Ultimately, it is important to accommodate the symbiotic relationship between the brain and the gut by increasing the amounts of beneficial bacterium in the body.
Mediterranean Diet and Metabolic Efficiency
The past decade has also seen research and development confirm the vital role nutrient-rich foods play in brain health. The Mediterranean diet is popular for its focus on healthy fats like oils, fish and nuts, whole grains, fruit, and vegetables which are foods research has shown to lower the risk of heart disease and promotes healthy aging (3).
This diet is also high in fibre which gut bacteria convert into short-chain fatty acids, metabolites that have many physiological consequences for the body including facilitating communication between neurotransmitters, like serotonin and dopamine, and the nervous system. These neurotransmitters regulate stress, memory, sleep and digestion among other processes. They also provide an ample source of energy for the body’s metabolic processes (4).
In addition, vitamins B and E and iron are all present in the foods you eat and the supplements you take, and each has consequences for cognitive wellness. For instance, omega-3 fatty acids like fish, eggs and brussel sprouts help biomolecules to promote strong synaptic plasticity while Vitamin B6, found in various fruits and vegetables like bananas and broccoli, also helps to improve memory (5). Moreover, B vitamins are essential for cell repair, promotion of red blood cells and metabolism. Low levels of B vitamins and iron increase the risk of depression and fatigue.
The Menu Matters
Foods that are rich in fibre and vitamins span most food groups. Research repeatedly shows that a varied diet is in the best interest of cognitive health. Dark and leafy greens, legumes, grains, fruits and vegetables, nuts, poultry, and fish can be found together in many healthy recipes on the web. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner options with these items include the Aint no Yolk omelet, Champions Scramble, Get Shredded Hash, Casbah Chicken, Coconut Chickpea Curry, Lem-N-Pepa Chicken, Cape Cod, Molte Bene Chicken, Turkish Bowl, and the Seoul Bowl with Kimchi. Kimchi is a probiotic packed with essential vitamins that fuel the brain by promoting good metabolism.
Social and Environmental Factors
Cognitive health also encompasses the capacity to think critically, to learn and to develop the mind. Much research suggests that brain health can be influenced by not only dietary and physical modifications but also genetic factors. Ultimately, you have control over the expression of some genes, while there are some for which you have no control. Furthermore, exposure to certain environments can exacerbate the expression of a particular gene, causing genetic mutations that foster detrimental diseases.
For example, stress is an environmental influence with both beneficial and adverse effects on mental and physical health. Some stress is good and can be responded to constructively by overcoming challenges and gaining confidence. Alternately, toxic stress is a comparatively debilitating form of stress where a person’s coping mechanisms are insufficient to mediate a stressor. In these cases, people might lose self-control and succumb to unhealthy behaviours like isolation and self-medication (6).
Research suggests that alcoholism, a form of self-medication, is itself a genetic disease with corresponding genetic precursors. In addition, alcohol has been found to cause gene mutations that can cause disease (7). This is an example of how environmental factors like unmitigated stress might contribute to alcoholism. This might also instigate a series of other destructive behaviours that harm the brain, including deficiencies in essential vitamins and minerals that comes with eating less resulting from a low appetite.
Ultimately, gene expression is regulated by DNA, which is regulated by metabolism. Diet plays an essential role in gene expression, and too much stress is a harmful environmental influence on the ability to have a good diet, and therefore negatively impacts cognitive health.
Regular social interaction unsurprisingly contributes to cognitive health as well. Human interaction increases psychological health, which helps to create constructive norms for physical health. Humans are social animals and need stable, dependable relationships to thrive.
Moreover, cognitive health is implicated in many health and lifestyle factors. Sometimes they are genetic, but there are many circumstances where you can exert influence over your brain’s health. Whether it’s by ascribing to a diet that promotes healthy bacteria, or by taking supplements to enhance essential vitamin deficiencies, research shows that these are steps in the right direction to increasing your cognitive abilities. Environmental and social factors also influence cognitive wellness, so it’s important to build productive relationships and constructive habits that fuel your ability to preserve your brain’s health.