How to Feed Your Brain

by Donna Fennessy
Photograph: Photo: Coolife and Carole & Pauline

You’re wiser and smarter than ever, so why can’t you remember your neighbor’s name? The situation may be a side effect of a mature mind. While certain aspects of brainpower—like your ability to reason—improve with age, neurons (or nerve cells) start to weaken and may not function as well as they used to. And many neurons die off, causing a slowdown in communication among the survivors, explains neurophysiologist Fernando Gómez-Pinilla, PhD, of the University of California at Los Angeles. Then, too, as you log more years, blood flow can decrease, depriving the brain of oxygen and other essential nutrients; this affects every function that’s regulated by the brain, including memory, reaction time and verbal ability.

But this slowdown is not inevitable. New research shows that by making a few dietary tweaks, you can prevent and even reverse these age-related declines.

1. Increase blood flow to the brain
If you love chocolate, then you’ll love this news: The flavonols in cocoa, an ingredient in chocolate, keep blood pumping to the brain, which means that the organ receives more oxygen and nutrients. In research done at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, women who drank one cup of cocoa a day for five days showed increased blood flow to key parts of the brain. As a result, for a few hours afterward, the women experienced improved alertness and performance on certain tasks. Researchers used cocoa that contained 150 milligrams of flavonols; make sure you’re getting enough by eating chocolate with at least 70 percent cocoa content. If you’re drinking cocoa, add it to skim milk to limit fat and calories, and avoid any products that say “Dutch processed” or “processed with alkali”; these contain fewer flavonols.

2. Help your brain cells communicate
In a series of studies, scientists from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell discovered that apple juice seems to increase the production of acetylcholine, a molecule that helps brain cells talk to one another, says researcher Thomas Shea, PhD. That’s important because your body naturally makes fewer of these signaling mole-cules as you get older. “Data suggest that one eight-ounce glass of juice per day is helpful,” Shea notes.

Other research says getting sufficient levels of the mineral magnesium may help combat memory lapses by enhancing the connections between brain cells, which are essential for learning. Good sources include apricots, artichokes, pumpkin seeds, bananas, beans, nuts, broccoli and dark, leafy vegetables such as spinach.

3. Fend off inflammation
Berries and the spice turmeric can help protect against the harmful effects of systemwide inflammation, which contributes to cognitive decline and other age-related conditions. Blueberries, for example, appear to be as effective at reducing inflammation as the powerful nonsteroidal anti—inflammatory drug piroxicam, or even more so, according to a 2008 study in Nutritional Neuroscience. Other berries may also be beneficial. In one study, aged rats that were fed blackberry extract had better short-term memory than rats fed a control diet, probably because the berry’s polyphenols (antioxidants) decrease inflammation and may have direct protective effects on the brain. And other research shows that strawberries contain an antioxidant called fisetin, which has anti-inflammatory properties that may make it useful for the treatment of Alzhei-mer’s and other neurological disorders.

Another brain-friendly ingredient, curcumin, the compound that gives turmeric its yellow color, may prevent the inflammation in the brain that can lead to degeneration, according to animal research. It may also help stop the buildup of plaque in the brain that’s associated with Alzheimer’s and may help clear out existing plaque, says Gregory Cole, PhD, professor of medicine and neurology at the University of California at Los Angeles.

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