By Dean Sherzai, MD, PhD and Ayesha Sherzai, MD
After fifteen years of research and practice, we are certain that lifestyle has a profound effect on the health of the brain, and we know that lifestyle medicine, a field of medicine devoted to addressing the factors that contribute to chronic disease, is the only way to both avoid and treat Alzheimer’s. The brain is a living universe. It responds to how you care for it, what you feed it, how you challenge it, the ways in which you allow it to rest and restore. Modern life significantly increases the risk of cognitive decline. Processed foods high in sugar and saturated fats are toxic for the brain. Most of us spend all day sitting at a desk or in traffic, but we need regular movement in order to stay healthy. We experience tremendous stress without the proper tools to manage that stress. Almost none of us are consistently getting a good night’s sleep, and our jobs often require repetitive activity, the exact opposite of what the brain needs to stay resilient as we age. But despite these very real challenges, it’s well within our power to preserve and even improve the function of our brains.
The problem for so long was that no one believed it was possible. Nearly everyone in the medical establishment is convinced that lifestyle intervention is futile. Our own medical training taught us that lifestyle change is impossible, and the way we conduct Alzheimer’s research is based on the assumption that people can’t change. We had to make a decision fifteen years ago: keep believing what we’d been taught, succumb to a system that refused to consider the role of lifestyle in cognitive health—or find another way.
Together we vowed to help people however we could. Dean earned a Ph.D. in health-care leadership to learn about the intricacies of behavioral change and how to empower individuals and whole communities. Ayesha completed a combined vascular neurology and epidemiology fellowship at Columbia University, where she focused on public health and the complex vascular aspects of neurological disease. While she was at it, she also went to cooking school—she knew her patients would only change their diets if she could make healthy food delicious. We brought all our skills to bear at Loma Linda University, where we conducted retrospective lifestyle studies that showed healthy behaviors were associated with longevity and dramatically lower rates of dementia. We observed these same profound effects in our clinic. There we had the unique opportunity to care for two radically different populations: our patients from Loma Linda, California, which has a large population of Seventh-day Adventists who embrace plant-based eating, regular exercise, and community service, were some of the healthiest people in the world; those in nearby San Bernardino, California, an underserved area plagued by chronic disease and lack of access to basic health care, were some of the sickest. We consistently found that people living a healthy lifestyle had a much lower prevalence of dementia. By contrast, those who lived unhealthy lifestyles got dementia more often, and it usually emerged earlier in life. Seeing the striking effects of diet, exercise, stress management, sleep quality, and cognitive activity on a daily basis changed our whole perspective on Alzheimer’s. The truth was undeniable: a brain-healthy lifestyle all but guarantees you will avoid Alzheimer’s disease.
Now, as the codirectors of the Brain Health and Alzheimer’s Prevention Program at Loma Linda University, we’ve guided thousands of people through the highly personalized process of lifestyle change. Every day we sit down with patients and look for the seed of potential change, one small aspect of healthy living that we can start with and build upon. We’ve helped people with a wide range of mental and physical limitations. We’ve become veritable masters at midlife behavioral change in patients who are less than enthusiastic about changing anything. Step by step we proved the establishment wrong: people can change their lives. If you read this today because you’re worried you are at risk for cognitive decline, or you want to do something about the symptoms you’re now experiencing, the NEURO Plan is the solution you’ve been waiting for.
N | Nutrition
A whole-food, plant-based diet low in sugar, salt and processed foods.
E | Exercise
An active lifestyle with movement every hour—not just a stop at the gym after an otherwise sedentary day.
U | Unwind
Stress management in the form of meditation, yoga, mindful breathing exercises, time spent in nature, all with the support of strong communities.
R | Restore
Seven to eight hours of regular, detoxifying sleep through intensive sleep hygiene, treatment for sleep disorders and management of medications and foods that adversely affect sleep.
O | Optimize
Social and multimodal activities (like music and language) to challenge and engage multiple brain centers.
See teamsherzai.com for more about the NEURO plan, including the upcoming NEURO masterclass.
Dean Sherzai, MD, PhD, is co-director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Program at Loma Linda University. Dean trained in Neurology at Georgetown University School of Medicine, and completed fellowships in neurodegenerative diseases and dementia at the National Institutes of Health and UC San Diego. He also holds a PhD in Healthcare Leadership with a focus on community health from Andrews University.
Ayesha Sherzai, MD is a neurologist and co-director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Program at Loma Linda University, where she leads the Lifestyle Program for the Prevention of Neurological Diseases. She completed a dual training in Preventative Medicine and Neurology at Loma Linda University, and a fellowship in Vascular Neurology and Epidemiology at Columbia University. She is also a trained plant-based culinary artist.
From THE ALZHEIMER’S SOLUTION: A Breakthrough Program to Prevent and Reverse the Symptoms of Cognitive Decline at Every Age. Copyright © 2017 by Dean Sherzai and Ayesha Sherzai. Reprinted with permission by HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers.