The Multifactor Prevention of Neurodegeneration

by Maya Saravanan

The daily recipe for a healthy brain is simple – 32 leaves of kale, 13.7 half ripe blueberries, a teaspoon of turmeric, and don’t forget your six hours of cardio!  

But is there really a way to prevent brain disease? And if so, how precise and accurate is it? Having had members of my family diagnosed with neural disorders, I can testify to the massive heaps of information that have been thrown at me concerning this issue. What’s worse is the sizeable contradictions among existing information. So the question prevails – how does one even begin to sort and make sense of this paradoxical information? Can we prevent neurological disease?  

Understanding prevention of medical conditions means that we must first understand the ailments themselves. It is evidently unreasonable to claim that we will ever fully know the mechanisms of Parkinson’s Disease (PD) or Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). However, the concrete bases of neurological diseases remain well comprehended. Looking more specifically at the biology of neurodegeneration, we see that it centers on the progressive loss of structure or function in neurons (specialized brain cells). Furthermore, this loss is irreversible and therefore cannot be cured at the current level of understanding. 

So what exactly causes this loss in the first place? There is strong causal evidence to show that it may be from mitochondrial dysfunction and oxidative stress. In layman’s terms, these terminologies refer to a chemical imbalance that destroys the building blocks of the human body. 

The concept of preventing cellular damage seems simple enough, but there is truly a great mixture of truth and myth surrounding this. Starting with popular health magazines, it’s easy to see why the confusion exists. Take the magazine Today’s Dietitian, for example. Within a five page paper, seven “Neurodegenerative Disease Preventions” are explained. Among these “solutions” are taking in more omega-3 fatty acids, caffeine and polyphenols while limiting calories but also following a Mediterranean diet. I was quite intrigued by the prospects of these answers. Could they really have an effect on how our brains will function later in life?  

Surprisingly, an overwhelming amount of literature suggests so. These additional nutrients in conjunction with calorie restriction truly do have a protective effect. For example, a study published by the Journal of Neuroscience states that there is “compelling evidence” to show that caloric choice and restriction is beneficial in delaying or preventing the onset of neurological diseases. Interestingly enough, research shows that there are actually certain dietary elements that are linked to reduced risk of AD and PD.  

For example, the Dr. Gillette-Guyonnet of the National Institutes of Health published a paper which praised certain spices in the Indian diet (namely, turmeric and curcumin) as working against mitochondrial dysfunction. Likewise, polyphenols (found in wine and plant oils) play a large role in combating the oxidative stress which often causes AD and PD. In addition, the American Physiological Society released a study, which stressed the importance of caloric restriction in preventing neural degradation. This idea was further constructed upon in a metadata analysis that explored the high-caloric, high-fat American diet in the context of Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). Captivatingly, a causal relationship was found between diet restriction and reduced risk for AD, which poses a novel point. Mainly, however, it (among countless other studies) demonstrates the importance of a balanced diet in helping reduce the risk for neural disease.  

Despite of all this evidence, diet is only a small portion of the battle. There is sustained, consistent research that indicates the importance of continued exercise and its anti-oxidative effects (thus delaying or resisting diseases such as PD). Although there is more literature supporting exercise’s benefits, almost all papers acknowledge the difficulty of controlling for extraneous variables (which supports the idea that there is not as causal of a relationship as we saw with diet).  

All in all, the question on everyone’s mind persists – can these crippling diseases be prevented through a “safe” lifestyle? The answer, it seems, is evidently not straightforward. The idea is to find the delicate balance between moderation and gluttony.  

Scientific literature presents the idea that caloric restriction plays a massive role in delaying or even preventing neurodegenerative disease. In addition, the content of these calories is of the utmost importance. A well-balanced diet should include what you learned in elementary school (remember the food pyramid?). But in addition, more exotic but nutritionally beneficial foods, such as wine and spices, should be included in sparing amounts.  

As for exercise, it seems that as painstaking as it may be to do continuously, your brain will thank you in the future. Though the relationship isn’t as direct as it seems to be with diet, continued exercise is one of the best methods to keep neurons from breaking down. Neural diseases are sadly at an all time high in the country, affecting over 6 million Americans every year. While several factors play into its development (including genetic and spontaneous dysfunction), it is very much possible to delay and even prevent neurodegenerative diseases through moderated diet and continued exercise.