Athletes must train their brains

Maria Shriver and experts in the field of Alzheimer’s research on why it’s a crucial part of the high-performance lifestyle.

Maria Shriver calls the brilliant minds at the front lines of mind-body science ‘architects of change.’ At her annual MOVE FOR MINDS event in early June, Shriver gathered these experts together for a conversation about Alzheimer’s, the need for research and funding to find its cure, and the changes we can all make to sidestep the debilitating disease.

After all, Alzheimer’s is the most expensive illness plaguing the United States today. It develops in a new brain every 66 seconds and two-thirds of its victims are women. While studies have made strides in helping us to understand its roots and consequences, much about the condition is left unknown. But experts argue that in many ways, Alzheimer’s is also preventable.

Furthermore listened in on the MOVE FOR MINDS summit. Here, the key takeaways.

Liz Hernandez,Access Hollywoodreporter and a caregiver to a mother with Alzheimer’s: When Alzheimer’s landed on our front door, we wrote it off as, ‘Mom's just being kooky.’ But Alzheimer’s doesn't just show up where you just start forgetting things. There are 10 warning signs for Alzheimer’s (you can go to alz.org to find them). I wish we would have known them. If you even suspect, just a little bit, I would go to a neurologist.

Maria Shriver (MS): Alzheimer's is in the brain for 20 years before it exhibits symptoms. Your brain begins to change at age 30. Just like training your body, you can begin to train your brain today. One of the things I wanted to stress is meditation.

Christopher Walling, Psy.D., of theAlzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation: We've been researching meditation's impact on Alzheimer’s for several decades now. A regular meditation practice creates a healthy brain. Even 12 minutes a day can help increase cerebral blood flow. It can help with subjective cognitive performance. And it can certainly mitigate stress.

Roberta Brinton, Ph.D., a leading researcher in the field of Alzheimer’s (RB): Age, being female, having the ApoE-e4 gene, and having a mother with Alzheimer's disease are all risk factors. The good news: These are not absolute determining factors. You can mitigate them through exercise and the Mediterranean diet. Biologically, we came from a place of very little glucose and lots of exercise. We walked out of Africa. We didn't take a flight. I’m not suggesting we go back to those times, but I am suggesting we are much more conscious about what put into our bodies. Women are also the CEOs of their homes and of family health. You can make that executive decision about what goes into the kitchen.

MS: What is the reason that women seem to be at risk?

RB: As women, we go through perimenopause and menopause. Most of us go through this transition just fine. But there's a subset of women who have a great deal of difficulty. They become depressed, develop low-grade inflammation, metabolic disorder, or insulin resistance. These are signs that you are beginning down a road that's unhealthy for your brain.

MS: But David, tell us why you are hopeful.

DavidPerlmutter, M.D., a world-renowned neurologist (DP): I, like Maria, lost my father to Alzheimer’s, but as an Alzheimer’s specialist of 35 years, I am hopeful looking out at these smiling faces knowing you want to know what else is out there. Going to the neurologist and having him or her say, ‘We think your mom or dad has Alzheimer's, here's a prescription, see you later’ is absolutely not good enough for me. It's not good enough for each and every one of you. If you live to be 85, 50 percent of you are going to have this diagnosis. But Alzheimer's is by and large preventable.

MS:What else can we do?

DP: If you engage in physical activity on a regular basis, you change the expression of your DNA to cause your body to make a chemical called BDNF [brain-derived neurotrophic factor], which makes your brain grow new brain cells and may reduce your risk for Alzheimer's disease by 50 percent. That's what it's all about: aerobic exercise.

Keep your blood sugar levels low, too: 100 to 105. Alzheimer's is related to diabetes.

MichaelGervais, group fitness manager at Equinox and creator of the Headstrong Meditation Podcasts

(MG): If you take one thing away it is: Sustain motion no matter what. We want to create neuroplasticity, too. While we have BDNF, if your workout is always the treadmill in front of the TV, get out of your comfort zone. Swimming, for example, is amazing for neurons because of all of the feedback that you are getting in the water.

Cristina Ferrare, chef, talk show host, and Alzheimer’s research advocate:Diseases that happen in the body start with the gut. If you start by making this better, then you will be better.

DP: I think probiotics are fantastic, but you've got to nurture them so they can keep your brain healthy. Do that through ‘prebiotic fiber,’ a fiber in jicama, garlic, onions, leeks, or dandelion greens.

MS: What about having a sense of purpose and feeling empowered?

RB: We were all born and as social beings. Nerve cells love each other. They don't like to be alone. Taking care of your soul is actually as important as taking care of your biology. Part of what's so exciting about this MOVE FOR MINDS is that this is a power group. When we say to the world, ‘we will not eat your processed foods’; or ‘we will only buy products that are biologically and spiritually empowering to us,’ the marketplace will change. That's the power that we have.

*The above has been condensed and edited for editorial purposes.