11 Foods That Age-Proof Your Brain

If you’re hoping to keep your wits about you for a long, long time, have supper early, make your own salad dressing, sprinkle seeds on your cereal and follow these nine other strategies

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Feeling a bit less sharp these days? Then pay attention to how and what you eat. “In the last five years, research has shown that when people with memory problems change their diet in certain ways, they can improve their cognitive abilities,” says Richard Isaacson, MD, Alzheimer’s specialist on the faculty of Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City and coauthor of The Alzheimer’s Diet: A Step-by-Step Nutritional Approach for Memory Loss Prevention & Treatment.

The first switch to make: Cut down on fried foods, sugar-packed items and refined carbohydrates; they promote obesity-related problems like type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure. “If you develop type 2 diabetes, you have a twofold increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease,” says Gary Small, MD, director of the UCLA Longevity Center at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior and coauthor of The Alzheimer’s Prevention Program. “And if you develop high blood pressure, it can negatively affect your memory and increase your risk of brain-damaging strokes.”

Read on for more dietary strategies to boost your brain health in both the near and distant future. 

Chris Silas Neal

Every Meal: Eat Soluble Fiber

“Insulin resistance, a condition in which the body produces insulin but doesn’t use it effectively, leads to brain-chemical imbalances and other changes in brain structure and function that are seen with Alzheimer’s disease,” says David L. Katz, MD, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center. “One of the most potent defenses we have against insulin resistance is soluble fiber, which slows the entry of sugar and other nutrients into the bloodstream.” This type of fiber, which dissolves in water to form a gel-like substance, is found in lentils, beans, peas, steel-cut oatmeal, barley and apples. Katz says it should be part of every meal you eat. 

 

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Every Day: Avoid Late Dinners

If you can eat nothing, not just for the eight or so hours you sleep but for 12 hours at a time, you might boost your brain health. That kind of fast puts your body into a very mild, temporary state of ketosis, in which your brain is forced to use ketone bodies (compounds produced when fatty acids are broken down by the liver) for energy since there isn’t enough glucose available in the blood. “In theory, increased ketone levels could lead to an improvement in brain-cell efficiency, a clearing of neuronal ‘traffic jams’ and a reduction in the oxidative stress that can cause damage to brain cells over time,” Isaacson says. These effects may improve memory function in people with mild cognitive impairment or Alz-heimer’s disease, he adds.


Though the ketosis strategy isn’t proven, it’s a reasonable theory, says Katz, who notes that a 12-hour fast is certainly harmless. To do the fast, time your last food of the day for 12 hours or more before you’ll have breakfast. So if you typically have your morning meal at 7 a.m., you should finish dinner by 7 p.m.

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Every Day: Mix Your Own Salad Dressing

Having a healthy salad a day—with a dressing made from olive oil—may just keep the neurologist away. “Make a vinaigrette with virgin olive oil, vinegar and herbs,” advises Christy Tangney, PhD, a professor of clinical nutrition at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. Olive oil is the key here. It’s rich in monounsaturated fats and alpha-linolenic acid (an omega-3 fatty acid), both of which are good for your brain. For instance, a Spanish study last year found that among people who followed a Mediterranean diet, those with a higher intake of virgin olive oil scored better on tests of immediate verbal memory than those who consumed less. Tangney suggests sticking to homemade dressings because store-bought ones often contain lots of salt, gums and other unhealthy additives.

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Every Day: Drink Smart

Propose a toast to your health with beverages shown to boost your mental powers. Several fruit juices fit the bill. Preliminary studies indicate that regularly drinking pomegranate juice may enhance memory function, possibly because of its antioxidant properties. And research at the University of Cincinnati points to improved learning and focus among older adults after 12 to 16 weeks of daily consumption of two other fruit drinks: wild blueberry juice and Concord grape juice. These benefits are believed to stem from the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects of the polyphenol compounds found in many berries and grapes.


Caffeinated drinks appear to provide mental benefits both right away and in the future. Consuming caffeine helps with short-term focus, Small notes, and habitual coffee consumption seems to lower the risk of ultimately developing Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. In addition, green tea contains EGCG (short for epigallocatechin-3-gallate), which was found, in mice, to enhance neurogenesis, the production of new cells, in an area of the brain related to spatial learning and memory. What’s more, green tea enhances the availability of dopamine in the brain, notes Daniel G. Amen, MD, medical director of the Amen Clinics and author of Unleash the Power of the Female Brain. “This neurotransmitter is involved in motivation, focus and pleasure,” he says.

Not a tea or coffee lover? Have a cup of hot cocoa. An Italian study determined that older adults with mild cognitive impairment who for eight weeks consumed a daily cocoa drink that had a high concentration of flavonols performed better on various measures of cognitive function than those in the low-concentration group. The researchers concluded that the benefit was partly due to improvements in insulin sensitivity. All unsweetened cocoa powder contains flavonols, but varie-ties that are not Dutch processed contain higher concentrations, Katz says. 

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Every Day: Sprinkle Seeds on Cereal and Salads

Eating seeds—such as pumpkin, sesame or flax—treats your brain to a substantial dose of vitamin E, which protects against free-radical damage. The potential payoff is huge: In a 10-year Dutch study of people ages 55 and over, those who consumed the most vitamin E had a 25 percent lower risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease than those who consumed the least.


It’s better to get this vitamin from foods rather than pills because “most E supplements have only one form of the vitamin—alpha-tocopherol—whereas foods also have others, such as gamma-tocopherol,” explains Neal Barnard, MD, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington, D.C., and author of Power Foods for the Brain. “These forms of vitamin E work together as a team.” Since seeds, like nuts, tend to be relatively high in calories, it’s smart to use them as a condiment in a meal rather than as the main event. Consuming about one ounce a day is sufficient, Barnard says.

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Often: Have Eggs for Breakfast (or Dinner)

Eggs are a good source of protein, iron, zinc and vitamin D, all nutrients that matter to your gray matter. Plus, they’re packed with choline, an essential nutrient that’s a precursor of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter involved in memory, muscle control and other key functions. In a study involving 1,391 (mostly older) adults in the Framingham Heart Study Offspring Cohort, researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine found that people who consumed a diet rich in choline scored significantly higher on tests of verbal and visual memory and were less likely to show changes associated with dementia on brain scans. If you don’t like eggs, a variety of vegetables (such as cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and broccoli) as well as shrimp, fish, chicken and peanuts are also good sources of choline, notes study coauthor Rhoda Au, PhD, a research professor of neurology at the Boston University School of Medicine.


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Often: Eat Mediterranean Style

Many of us would gladly dine at a first-rate Greek, Italian, southern French, Spanish or similar restaurant simply because the food tastes great. But Mediterranean cuisine also happens to be incredibly healthy. With an emphasis on fruits, vegetables, beans and other legumes, whole grains, poultry, seafood and olive oil, the Mediterranean diet is loaded with antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids and healthy fats. In an on-going longitudinal study involving nearly 3,800 adults ages 65 and over, researchers at the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago found that adherence to a Mediterranean diet (as opposed to a healthy American-style diet) was associated with slower rates of cognitive decline as the participants got older. “The Mediterranean diet is a prime example of food you could love that also loves you back,” says Katz.


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Often: Fix Any Vitamin B Deficiencies

After age 50, many people don’t absorb B12from food as well as they used to because they no longer produce sufficient stomach acid or they’re taking acid-suppressing medications to prevent reflux. A shortfall of B12can lead to memory problems or, in severe cases, a temporary form of dementia, warns Tangney. (The dementia is reversed when the deficiency is fixed.) Conversely, higher blood levels of B12in older adults are associated with slower rates of cognitive decline, according to research at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.


Several of the other B vitamins are important for brain health, too. A recent report from the Oregon Brain Aging Study found that older adults who had higher blood levels of five B vitamins (B1, B2, B6, folate and B12) had better cognitive function than those with lower levels. Folate, B6and B12, in particular, work together to eliminate homocysteine, an amino acid that circulates in your blood and at elevated levels is harmful to your brain as well as your heart. “Homocysteine is sort of the equivalent of factory waste, and you need to sweep it out of your bloodstream,” says Barnard. Consuming foods that are rich in folate (broccoli, spinach and other leafy greens, asparagus, beans, peas, cantaloupe, citrus fruits and fortified cereals), B6(garbanzo beans, baked potatoes, sunflower seeds, winter squash, bananas, sockeye salmon, chicken and turkey) and B12(fish, caviar, yogurt, eggs, chicken and B12-fortified nonfat milk or soy milk) can help keep your brain in good working order.

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Often: Liven Up Your Meals with Cinnamon

This spice offers a number of benefits. It has anti-inflammatory properties, which may help protect against neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Cinnamon also has antioxidant effects, which is significant because “antioxidants fight against the oxidative stress brought on by unstable molecules called free radicals that damage brain cells,” Small explains. Moreover, cinnamon consumption has been found to reduce fasting blood sugar, which would protect against developing insulin resistance. For instance, a recent study at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, determined that when subjects consumed six grams (about one tablespoon) of ground cinnamon in an instant farina cereal, their blood sugar rose more slowly over a two-hour period than when they consumed the cereal plain. 


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Often: Snack on Berries

Strawberries and blueberries are among the best foods for learning and memory, suggests a recent report from the ongoing Nurses’ Health Study. Researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston found that older adults with greater intakes of these fruits had slower rates of cognitive decline as they got older; the scientists estimated that a high intake of the two berries delays cognitive aging by up to 2.5 years. The berries’ flavonoids, a type of antioxidant, reduce oxidative stress and inflammation, improve signaling between neurons and protect brain cells from stress, according to research at the Jean Mayer Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University. When you’re shopping, you may want to go the organic route because strawberries and blueberries have some of the highest levels of pesticide residue among produce, Amen notes.


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Twice a Week: Eat Fatty Fish

There’s a good reason fish has been called brain food. Consuming omega-3 fatty acids—plentiful in fatty fish—can reduce inflammation throughout the body, and the less inflammation, the better your odds of maintaining brainpower. In addition, omega-3s are important for the functioning of cell membranes, including those in the brain, and they have a stabilizing effect on neurotransmitters, which is also beneficial for brain function, Katz explains. These benefits add up: Research from Columbia University found that healthy older adults who have a higher intake of omega-3 fatty acids have lower levels of beta-amyloid, a protein associated with an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and age-related cognitive decline, than those who consume few omega-3 fatty acids.


In terms of brain health, the most important form of omega-3 fatty acids is DHA (short for docosahexaenoic acid), Isaacson says, though EPA (short for eicosapentaenoic acid) also plays a vital role in regulating mood and protecting the nervous system. A combination of DHA and EPA can be found in albacore tuna, wild salmon, mackerel, lake trout, herring and sardines; eat these fish at least twice a week. 

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First Published Tue, 2013-07-30 11:21

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