Joseph F. McCaffrey MD, FACS


Stay Mentally Sharp As Time Goes By

It’s bad enough to decline physically. Even worse is mental decline. The idea of losing cognitive power frightens everyone.  It’s especially frightening if you’ve witnessed anyone descend into the abyss of Alzheimer’s. Our ability to think makes us human.  Our memories are the record of our life. When dementia robs a person of these, they’ve lost something truly precious.

Take the case of Edith, one of my elderly patients. She had a shuffling gait and a vacant gaze. Because of her live-in caregiver, she was neatly dressed and groomed. As she sat, she looked at the woman next to her, her daughter, and asked: “Where’s Kate? Do you know where Kate is?” “I’m here Mom.  I’m Kate.” “No you’re not, my Kate is a little girl. Where’s Kate?”

Sadly, I’ve seen too many people like Edith. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to happen. You can stay mentally clear and crisp well into old age. You know this to be true – you’ve seen it. I’m sure at some point you’ve met a person with plenty of years who was still sharp as anything. Aren’t those people a delight? Don’t they exude life?

It’s possible to grow old and age minimally. But it doesn’t happen by accident.  Habitual choices carry long term consequences. Research gives us some pretty strong suggestions on how to stay sharp as we grow old.

Here’s a quick run down of some ways to maintain your mental edge over time. You’ll see some familiar recommendations. A healthy lifestyle benefits all of you, including your brain.


People who are active are at lower risk for mental decline. Some studies even show improved mental function in elderly people who start a walking program after years of being sedentary.

Obviously, there are a lot of other reasons you should exercise. Maintaining your wits just emphasizes the importance of an exercise program. You can read about several effective, efficient exercise programs in Total Health Breakthroughs. Pick one and stay with it.


Eat a healthy diet, especially one high in fruits and vegetables. The antioxidants and micronutrients they contain go a long way toward protecting brain function. Researchers are looking at the effects of many different foods. Here are some of the findings.

The type of fat in your diet affects brain function. Omega three fatty acids are an important component in all neural tissue. A diet high in omega 3 fatty acids leads to lower levels of inflammation and improved brain function. Fish are a good source of these types of fats. Unfortunately, in today’s world you need to be concerned that contaminants such as heavy metals and PCBs taint fish. Even so, I still eat salmon at least once a week and take fish oil supplements daily.

Other fats affect brain function as well. It turns out that fats that help your heart also help your brain. Researchers in Italy examined people several times over an eight year period. Those who ate less saturated fat and more monosaturated fats (like olive oil) showed significantly better cognitive function at the end of the study. In other words, the Mediterranean diet helps your brain and your heart.

India has a low incidence of dementia. The obvious question is why. The answer may be in the diet. A study from the National University of Singapore documented a much lower rate of dementia in people who ate curry regularly as opposed to those who ate it rarely.

One reason curries may be helpful is that they often contain turmeric. Turmeric has high levels of curcumin, which has significant anti-inflammatory action. It’s actually been shown to reverse plaque formation in animal models of Alzheimers.

Other spices in curries, such as ginger, cinnamon and garlic, have health benefits as well. All in all, it’s a reason to develop a taste for Indian food.

Blueberries contain some of the highest levels of antioxidants of any fruit. In animal studies, adding blueberries to the diet protects against brain aging and the impairment in learning ability and memory that goes with it. 

Green Tea
A study from Japan has shown that people who drink two cups of green tea a day had a 50% lower risk of dementia compared to those who drank less than 3 cups a week. Black tea and coffee failed to show this benefit.  

Stress raises levels of hormones that inhibit brain function and actually damage brain cells. Therefore it’s important to learn techniques to deal with stress that defuse this risk. Practices such as meditation, guided imagery and especially HeartMath all help in this area

Mental training
Physical exercise is good for you, and so is mental exercise. The brain is remarkably “plastic” even into old age. This means that new connections can be formed between brain cells at any age. You can stimulate this type of growth by doing new things.

Dr. Willis and her colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania showed that cognitive training improved function and that the improvement persisted over the five years of the study. 

Learning a foreign language, working on challenging puzzles, reading fascinating books all stimulate cognitive development.  Not to mention the fact that they make life more enjoyable.

I believe your diet should be your main source of nutrients. Having said that, consider these supplements to give yourself an extra edge.

Fish Oil
As I mentioned, omega three fatty acids are critical for brain function. They suppress inflammation, which is partly responsible for deterioration of the brain as well as a lot of other problems. There are several good reasons to supplement with fish oil, and helping your brain is one of them.

Ginko Bilboa
This herb has had a lot of publicity as a memory aid. It seems to work by improving blood flow. Most studies have shown moderate effectiveness and it has a good safety profile.

If you can’t develop a taste for curries (my recommendation), curcumin is available as a supplement. 

Alpha Lipoic Acid and Acetyl L Carnitine
Alpha lipoic acid is a powerful antioxidant. Acetyl L carnitine protects the mitrocondria (the energy producing “powerhouses” of the cells) from age related damage. Together, they protect the brain.

Another supplement that has generated a lot of interest is phosphatidylserine. Acetylcholine is an important neurotransmitter that is reduced in Altzheimers and other forms of dementia. Phosphatidylserine is a precursor of acetylcholine. Taking it as a supplement improves acetylcholine levels and has shown benefit in both animal and human studies.

Do you think you might be able to develop a taste for green tea? And would it be possible to keep some blueberries to your diet? Small changes can have large benefits.

I’ve given you many suggestions to consider. As you can see, there’s a lot you can do to stay sharp as you age. Following these suggestions will do more than just help your brain. You’ll improve your overall levels of vitality while reducing your risk of disease.

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