Improving memory: A leading neuroscientist spells out a prescription for the brain — feed the body

According to a leading neuroscientist, the number one way to stave off dementia is in the foods we eat, like the Mediterranean diet shown here.


According to a leading neuroscientist, the number one way to stave off dementia is in the foods we eat, like the Mediterranean diet shown here.

Dr. Michael Mega, a top researcher in memory diseases, says there are ways to strengthen your memory. That’s the good news.

The tough part is whether you will make the lifestyle modifications he recommends. Habits are hard to break.

Mega, founder and director of the Center for Cognitive Health in Portland, is one of only 115 research-oriented cognitive neurologists in the world.

He says lifestyle modifications could change the progression of memory loss diseases. Here’s his advice: Avoid the “poison” of refined sugar.

The foods we eat are the number one thing a person can do to strengthen memory and put off dementia, he says. It’s the same risk factors as heart disease and other degenerative diseases.

Mega, a self-described nerd, says he grew impatient with corporate healthcare restrictions and chose to be independent.

“You get more than three people in a room and nothing gets done,” he says. “All you do is spend time in meetings.”

His time has been focused on 11 major clinical trials, seven previous department head positions, publishing multiple scientific papers, book chapters and a textbook contributing to the field of cognitive neuroscience. He has bachelor’s degree in physiological psychology and philosophy, and a doctorate in neuroscience from UCLA.

This doctor preaches the merits of the Mediterranean diet, limiting red meat and adding chicken, fish and pork. Eat lots of vegetables, he says, and cut out sugar.

“Sweetened foods are the worst,” Mega says, because they contribute to the risk factors for diabetes, heart attacks, strokes and Alzheimer’s.

Exercise is essential for heart health, but also for the brain because it can help the speed of processing information.

Mega recommends 20 minutes of exercise, three times a day. Reduce stress and learn ways to control the fight-or-flight reflex.

Other advice: Be cognitively active, have a hobby and, after retirement, do things that stimulate the brain. Don’t sit in an easy chair watching 24-hour news, or “you will go downhill faster,” Mega says.

When it comes to supplements, he advocates for resveratrol, flax seed, curcumin extract, Centrum Silver and omega-3 fatty acids.Prescription drugs like Aricept help with focus and increase motivation to do fun things, he says. One out of four people respond to Aricept.

Other drugs include the Exelon patch (especially for those who experience GI problems with Aricept), and Galantine. All of these are acetylcholine esterase inhibitors that help increase attention and processing speed — but not memory.

While he knows what you should do, he doesn’t know how early in life it’s imperative to practice what he’s preaching, but commitments should be made by age 40, if not sooner.

“Why not embrace lifestyle modifications early,” he asks.

The field of research

Mega has ongoing clinical trials for new drugs.

“In the quest to conquer Alzheimer’s disease, new drugs that can be used long before the effects of the disease take hold are being tested,” he says. “These drugs can target and diminish production of a specific protein found in the brain — beta-amyloid — that’s thought to cause Alzheimer’s.”

The field of Alzheimer’s research has changed significantly in recent years, Mega says, as the emergence of PET scans enables the amyloid plaque to be visualized in the living brain.

“It allows us to select people who are asymptomatic, but at risk, and then administer compounds to see if we can prevent memory problems from occurring,” he says.

Because amyloid deposits in the brain appear to peak about 10 years before memory symptoms occur, scientists are committed to determining when anti-amyloids should best be administered.

Mega is currently enrolling candidates for a worldwide trial to prevent Alzheimer’s disease in people at risk by virtue of having a positive PET scan, but with normal cognition.

To enter the trial, you must have a study partner. If you are ages 60-65, you must have a first-degree relative with Alzheimer’s. If you are ages 65-85, you do not need to have a relative with the disease. Call 503-548-0908 or visit centerforcogntivehealth.com to fill out an online survey.

Another study will investigate a community-based sample of individuals with subjective cognitive decline who are also PET positive for the biomarkers of Alzheimer’s disease. They are given treatment or placebo to stop amyloid production and potentially the progression of memory decline. Candidates need to be essentially healthy, have no psychiatric illness or abnormal amyloid.

Helping caregivers

For caregivers of people with dementia, Mega recommends posting a large monthly calendar, noting any routine activities or appointments. It should include reminders and prompts.

He also says caregivers should encourage the writing of notes during the day and then reviewing when the day is over, to help with keeping track of tasks and upcoming events.

These motions, Mega says, can alleviate some of the frustrations experienced by those with memory loss, and that lead to irritation and anxiety, depending upon the underlying personality structure.

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