If you can keep your brain sharp and stave off dementia with certain foods, you should probably get on your shopping list. Well, start writing.
Whether it’s because of their ability to fight harmful free radicals, keep the brain’s blood vessels clear of debris or because of the evolutionary boost from phytochemicals, a variety of foods seem to give aging brains a healthy edge.
“Improving our diet can support a healthy mood, a healthier brain, reduce inflammation — and also help treat any inflammation associated with neurodegeneration and brain aging,” says Dr. Uma Naidoo, a nutrition psychiatrist, professional chef and based dietitian. In Boston, author of “This Is Your Brain On Food.”
Foods for healthy brain aging
holistic healthy eating pattern Combined with an active lifestyle, it helps keep your mind sharp as you age. When advising patients, Naidoo recommends these foods distinct for their cognition-preserving effects:
- Extra virgin olive oil. The less processed version of olive oil is brain health. “It’s linked to a lower incidence of Alzheimer’s disease because it increases cell autophagy,” says Naidoo. “This is our cellular cleaning process.”
- Choose the spices. “The hidden magic in our kitchen cupboard is the seasoning,” says Naidoo. In particular, turmeric with a pinch of black pepper, cinnamon, saffron, rosemary, and ginger “really correlates with healthy brain nutrients (in terms of) older adults and how they think.” It is important to add black pepper when using turmeric “because it makes it at least twenty times more bioavailable to your body.”
- Fish for healthy fats. Wild salmon, anchovies, and sardines are major sources of omega-3 fatty acids called EPA and DHA, which are important for brain health.
- Nuts and seeds. “You can also get plant sources of omega-3s — things like walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseeds,” says Naidoo. “These small seeds and nuts can be layered on top of salads or blended into a smoothie.”
- Leafy vegetables. Swiss chard, dandelion greens, lettuce, watercress, spinach, and other leafy greens contain vitamin B9 (folic acid). “Folic acid deficiency has been associated with several neurological conditions,” says Naidoo. “So improving folic acid has a positive benefit on both cognitive aging and brain health.”
- Rainbow fruits and vegetables. Colorful vegetables like red peppers or fruits like blueberries are more visually appealing. It contains phytonutrients and fiber, explains Naidoo, “and they also interact positively with the gut microbiome.” “And these gut microbes are very essential to reducing inflammation in the body when we feed and nourish them well.” She says the inflammation in the gut goes back to the brain. “We know there’s a link between the gut and the brain, and we want to be really careful what we’re consuming for that reason.”
Natural, very dark chocolate may have brain benefits, too. “We want to make sure we’re not just talking about candy bars that are full of sugar,” Naidoo notes. However, “70% of dark chocolate is rich in nutrients such as cocoa flavanols and magnesium.”
Brain health diets for seniors
The Mind Diet, introduced about six years ago, was created specifically to reduce the risk of dementia in older adults. Researcher Martha Claire Morris, a nutritional epidemiologist at Rush University Medical Center, and colleagues combined features from the DASH diet and the Mediterranean diet to create the MIND diet, which includes 10 brain-healthy food groups: green leafy vegetables, other vegetables, nuts, and beans. Whole grains, fish, poultry, olive oil, wine, berries, especially blueberries. (The three diets rank very highly in many categories of the best diets in the United States.)
“The MIND diet has a great deal of research behind it,” says Naidoo, regarding the effects of combining the omega-3-rich Mediterranean diet with the DASH regimen that promotes vascular health. “Mind is really designed to improve brain function as we age,” Mind says.
Naidoo points to a landmark study on the Mediterranean diet, with an updated version published in the New England Journal of Medicine in June 2018. It provides compelling evidence that this type of dietary pattern improves cognitive abilities, says Naidoo.
“It uses the word ‘diet’ but it’s not a trendy diet: ‘All this, not that,'” she says. ‘It really uses the principles of healthy eating and directing people towards what to look for and what foods to include that will help you with your brain health.’
Berries, coleslaw and your brain
As early as 1999, researchers found that feeding elderly mice helped them navigate better through mazes they had previously run, says Dr. Michael Greer, MD and founder of NutritionFacts.org. But it wasn’t until around 2010 that studies began showing brain benefits for people who eat berries.
One was the Long-Term Nurses’ Health Study, which followed more than 16,000 women age 70 and older and found that those who ate more berries showed slower rates of mental decline. “The volume of links was impressive,” Greger says. “Women who ate more berries seemed to delay cognitive aging by 2.5 years. So your brain appears to be 2.5 years younger if you eat berries.”
Brain scans with functional MRI can show a difference in brain function as people eat blueberries. The reason: “We think they’re polyphenols phytonutrients,” says Greger. “These are special antioxidant pigments, like the natural blue and violet pigments in berries, which actually cross the blood-brain barrier.”
Foods, drinks, and extracts with similar tinctures — such as pomegranate and grape juice — are also being studied for potential brain benefits.
Not fond of berries? Brightly colored cabbage also contains the same brain-healthy phytonutrients, Greger says. “The cheapest, most available, and most convenient source of the compound is purple and red cabbage, as in coleslaw,” he says. “They last up to a week in the fridge. They make a delicious, crunchy crunch, while adding color to any meal.” Cabbage, he says, “has the most antioxidants per dollar, outperforming things like acai berries, superfoods, which aren’t quoted.”
Good for your heart Good for your brain
Vascular dementia is caused by a series of “micro-strokes” that people don’t even know about but which damage parts of the brain that are fed by tiny blood vessels, Greger explains. It has been well established that atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, is a risk factor for these strokes.
Recently, a similar connection has been made with the other major type of dementia. “It turns out that the risk of Alzheimer’s disease is not just related to the risk factors themselves; but if you treat them, you can really make a difference,” Greger says.
In recent findings, people with Alzheimer’s disease who were treated for high cholesterol or blood pressure did better. “It did not stop the disease, it did not reverse the disease,” he says. “But it slowed the progress.”
Brain artery scans of people with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease or cognitive decline show that patients with less stiffness in these arteries remain more stable over time, Greger says. “But those with more cholesterol buildup (and) more obstruction rapidly decline in their ability to think, and their ability to carry on with activities of daily living.”
in a study Published in March 2018 in BMJ Open, a group of 116 New York-area participants aged 30 to 60 years with normal brain function underwent an MRI scan. Those who followed a Mediterranean diet had thicker cortical brain regions — areas associated with reduced memory performance in people with Alzheimer’s disease.
Cholesterol cleaning fibers
When it comes to lowering cholesterol, Greger says, the more whole plant foods in your diet, the better. “They contain fiber, which pulls cholesterol out of the body and sort of flushes it out,” he says. “We’re not talking about processed plant foods or refined foods like white flour, pasta or bread. We’re talking about whole plant foods: fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, peas, and lentils.”
Not only do berries fight free radicals – they can also fight cholesterol. “Berries have a lot of soluble fiber,” Greger says. “That’s why they freeze when you make your Thanksgiving cranberry sauce, with pectin. So berries can offer the best of both worlds.”
Fasting for your brain?
Challenge your brain cells at a short speed, suggests Mark Mattson, former chief of the Neurosciences Laboratory at the National Institute on Aging and professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Intermittent fasting and brain aging are the subject of both animal and human studies, says Mattson, author of The Intermittent Fasting Revolution: The Science of Improving Health and Improving Performance, to be released in February 2022.
“The results are very clear, that intermittent fasting can alleviate age-related cognitive impairment, or age-related learning and memory decline,” Mattson says in animal studies.
Human studies of intermittent fasting and brain function are not definitive. Some early evidence is beginning to suggest associations with better brain health, although cause-and-effect relationships have not been established:
- In a survey-based study of nearly 900 adults living in Sicily, published in the January 2021 issue of the journal Nutrients, participants who followed time-restricted feeding with daily eating windows of 10 hours or less (for example, skipping breakfast) were less likely to become infected. Cognitive impairment.
- in a study In the August 2020 issue of Nutrients, among nearly 100 adults with mild cognitive impairment, those who practiced intermittent fasting regularly over three years were more likely to return to normal cognitive function than those who practiced intermittent fasting inconsistently or not. All.
Mattson says it doesn’t seem to matter which intermittent fasting option you choose, whether it’s an eight- or six-hour period of eating or a 5:2 intermittent fasting where someone eats one medium-sized meal for two days. week. “What has been established—compared to breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks—that eating or eating one medium-sized meal per day is better in terms of regulating glucose and reducing belly fat,” he says, and more.
The take-home message is: “For people who are overweight and older, intermittent fasting can help them lose weight and lose some belly fat,” says Mattson. “That relationship with belly fat was associated with cognitive impairment.” He adds that exercise is also important, with research supporting its positive effects on cognition in older adults.
Mattson says that when you’re not fasting, eating fruits and vegetables can help your brain — and that could be due to evolution. “The chemicals in fruits and vegetables are actually toxins from an evolutionary perspective, produced by plants to prevent insects and other organisms, including humans, from eating them,” Mattson says.
He suggests that plants that contain bitter or spicy chemicals — such as caffeine, chemicals in vegetables like broccoli, or curcumin (in the spice turmeric) — may help build brain flexibility.
By following a varied diet, you can benefit from a range of cognitive foods that may enhance different parts of the brain, according to NutritionFacts.org. For improving executive function, speed of perception, general cognition and memory based on facts, total vegetable intake appears to be most important. For subjective memory and visuospatial skills, total fruit intake is key, according to the site. Carrots may benefit one area of the brain, Greger says, while mushrooms can help in another.
In general, a healthy, varied diet will likely be your best bet. “We can’t eat a standard American diet (and just throw) some berries on our bacon,” Greger says. “It may not be a magic bullet, but this arsenal of foods we eat to improve brain health.”