Intermittent Fasting and Dementia Prevention

dementia-brainKeep to the left.

The G8 had a summit a few days ago on something a little unusual: your brain health.

The reason become clear when you look at the stats. Forecasts of a trebling in sufferers of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease by 2050 are breath taking.  This forecast has been all over the news and with good reason as these conditions are no joke, they’re debilitating, upsetting and cost lots of money. For many of us though these types of diseases seem remote, something that’s a long way off but they’re more prevalent and starting earlier and earlier. What you do today alters your health tomorrow – and none of us is getting any younger – so what are we doing about it?

There’s currently a big push to expand budgets for research into dementia and Alzheimer’s, with focus on early diagnosis and treatment strategies. Developing better drugs to slow the progression of the decline is important but so is early detection so that people can be treated whilst quality of life is still relatively high.

As ever prevention is better than cure.

Picking the disease up early and slowing its progression is great but what if we can take effective steps to delay the start of these diseases, or possibly stop their onset all together?  Fasting seems to be a real option here.

B0004164 Neurons in the brain - illustration

Diseases like metabolic syndrome, diabetes and such are closely related to declines in cognitive health, but both dementia and Alzheimer’s are complex beasts involving a bunch of different factors like energy intake, metabolic health, inflammation lifestyle factors like stress, social health etc. Elements in our diet and lifestyle can alter our internal environment which in turn increases the stress on neurons.  The end result of too much insult and injury in the death of neuron.

The problem is that the neurons are very specialised cells, working via a highly complex network of interrelated cells, meaning that when one dies it cannot be easily replaced, the upshot is this: you have to hand onto as many as possible. Luckily the brain has strategies for defending the neurons, one of the these is BDNF.

Your new best friend BDNF

Research has shown using tests of large populations that the more BDNF you have the lower your chance of dementia and Alzheimer’s. Good news. But what is it and how do we get more?

‘Brain-derived neurotrophic factor’ is a protein produced in a variety of tissues, the major area of interest is its effect on the cells of the central nervous system like the nerves of the spine and the brain. Here it supports the function and health of neurons and has been shown to be involved in  the growth and development of nerves and nervous systems function (the development of the nervous system) as well as the cognition, memory and learning (the function of the nervous system).

Low levels of BDNF have been implicated in a wide range of disorders such as depression, bulimia, OCD as well as dementia  and Alzheimer’s. Elevating the production of BDNF is actually pretty simple though

bdnfmoleculeBDNF (Source: Scientifi American)

Intermittent Fasting and Dementia Prevention?

We know reducing energy intake aka calorie restriction (CR) is a defence against brain ageing dementia and Alzheimer’s, what is not becoming clear is that Intermittent Fasting (IF) may be a better way to get these results.

Mice are a the usual model of research in this area as their shorter life cycles make seeing the results in a useful time frame possible. These mice are altered to better reflect what is going on in human brains. They’re then left to decline or they’re ‘insulted’ by having certain chemicals injected into them that cause damage in the brain. Not nice for the mouse, but for us the news is good; the studies are very promising as both CR and IF have been shown to have a protective effects in these cases, the issue is always that the results need to be shown in humans to be really exciting.

Here things get harder because of our longer life spans and the sticky ethical issues of destroying someone brain with drugs. So researchers look for other factors that are involved in the health of the brain. Here again the news is good. Both CR and IF boost the levels of BDNF, they also have the power to improve insulin sensitivity which is another factor involved in long term brain health.

Why Intermittent Fasting is better?

It’s hard to compare the relative strength of IF versus CR in relation to their ability to protect the brain. It’s comparing apples and oranges, but as far as long term results go we do know this:

  • We need these protective factors to be in place long term
  • For the protection to be in place long term we need to alter behaviour (diet) long term
  • For long term behaviour change things have to be easy … long term.

Again IF wins out because of its ease of use. You get the same types of changes with IF as you do with CR but by concentrating on short bursts of work. Fasting 1 to 2 times a week represents a real way of improving and guarding brain health but without the constant grind of CR diets. You’re also get all the benefits of enhanced muscle retention etc that IF has over CR.

Selected Refs and further reading

Mattson, Mark P., and Ruiqian Wan. “Beneficial effects of intermittent fasting and caloric restriction on the cardiovascular and cerebrovascular systems.” The Journal of nutritional biochemistry 16.3 (2005): 129-137.

Halagappa, Veerendra Kumar Madala, et al. “Intermittent fasting and caloric restriction ameliorate age-related behavioral deficits in the triple-transgenic mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease.” Neurobiology of disease 26.1 (2007): 212-220.

Tajes, M., et al. “Neuroprotective role of intermittent fasting in senescence-accelerated mice P8 (SAMP8).” Experimental gerontology 45.9 (2010): 702-710.

Martin, Bronwen, Mark P. Mattson, and Stuart Maudsley. “Caloric restriction and intermittent fasting: two potential diets for successful brain aging.” Ageing research reviews 5.3 (2006): 332-353.

Weinstein, Galit, et al. “Serum Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor and the Risk for Dementia The Framingham Heart Study.” JAMA neurology (2013).

Bloomberg: Fasting Twice a week seen as Alzheimer’s hedge

Scientific American: This is your brain on BDNF

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