It’s well-known that bacteria thrive in areas with four characteristics: sweet, warm, wet and still. That’s why a breastfeeding woman, if she has to stop for some time, often experiences bacterial infection. Her milk is sweet, warm, and wet, and if it’s not flowing, it’s lying still, pooling in her body.
We are nests for bacteria, many of which are beneficial (witness the current interest in gut bacteria as an indicator and cure for obesity), so those bacteria already present in her body are attracted to and gobble up the milk, which makes them reproduce past normal levels. They then cause infection, pain and fever.
I’m not suggesting that bacteria are responsible for on-the-increase brain dementias – the causes are still uncertain and probably much more complex – although some years ago the science of stomach disorders was revolutionized by the finding that certain bacteria are responsible for ulcers.
However, it does occur to me that while we cannot alter the brain’s level of sweetness, warmth and wetness (those are givens), we can change its level of stillness. Not the organ itself. It stays within the skull. Instead, the way we use our brains.
Current research is pointing to brain plasticity (flexibility), which reduces as we age, as a key factor in dementias. A certain amount of plasticity is lost to years. However, there’s an important amount of brain stimulation we can do to maintain a healthy, flexible brain as well as build up our cognitive reserve, our supply of extra brain cells.
Learn a new language. Travel. Take up a new hobby, preferably one that involves movement. Change what you eat.
Yes, your diet. If you give the brain what it craves (complex carbohydrates), it will do better. Remember that breastmilk? In humans, breastmilk is loaded with complex carbohydrates, unlike cow’s milk (lots of protein to build leg muscle to hold up a huge body) or milk from whales (a high percentage of fat, to build protection from cold water). Complex carbohydrates build brain matter. It’s the human brain that distinguishes us from other animals, and human milk recognizes this.
Adults find complex carbohydrates in vegetables and fruits, whole grains and legumes. All the things that are good for our gut, as well.
In fact, the human gut has more neurons than the spinal cord. It is in constant communication with the nervous system. That’s why, when we’re nervous, we talk about butterflies in the stomach. Meeting someone who rubs us the wrong way, we have a gut reaction, and trusting our gut is one of the main themes of Gavin de Becker’s excellent book The Gift of Fear.
Physicians who specialize in intestine/brain interaction refer to the gut as the “little brain”. So it makes sense to feed it well. A healthy diet for one is healthy for the other.
Exercise. Walk. Listen to music with complex melodies. Try to see reasonable arguments from both sides – an excellent way to build plasticity. Read good books and articles.
Avoid garbage like violence and pornography, both of which are addictive.
Keep your mind well-fed and moving.
A well-nourished, moving, active brain will stave off the infection of dementia and Alzheimer’s much more robustly than one that’s been left to lie still.