Boosting Brain Health: What Can Food Do?

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Over the past few weeks I’ve highlighted various dietary supplements that may (or may not) play a role in slowing cognitive decline. Supplements can be “iffy” in that they’re not always well researched, side effects can be a concern, and they can be expensive. So that leads to the question, “Can eating a particular food or foods promote brain health?” Let’s take a look.

Fatty fish. A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that omega-3 fatty acids can boost memory, enhance learning, and prevent depression, mood disorders, schizophrenia, and dementia. Because a large part of brain tissue (gray matter) is made up of one of the omega-3 fatty acids called DHA, it makes sense to be sure you’re eating a food source of this, plus another omega-3 fatty acid called EPA. Both of these fatty acids ensure communication between brain cells. Our bodies can’t make these fatty acids, so we need to ingest them.

I’m probably repeating myself, but it’s worth mentioning again: Food sources of omega-3 fatty acids include fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, and lake trout. (To limit exposure to mercury, it’s best to avoid, or at least eat very infrequently, shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish.) So, try to fit in fish at least twice a week (don’t forget that canned fish counts, too!).

Blueberries. It’s hard to resist these juicy little berries and now there’s even more reason to eat them. Blueberries are rich in antioxidants, including vitamin C, vitamin E, and polyphenols.

Studies in lab animals indicate that blueberries enhance motor behavioral learning and memory. And a new study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry indicates the same may be true in humans. In this study, two group of adults in their 70’s with memory problems completed memory and cognition tests. One group then drank 2 1/2 cups of blueberry juice every day for twelve weeks, while the other group was given a placebo (inactive treatment) disguised as blueberry juice. Both groups subsequently took the same tests again. The subjects who’d had the blueberry juice showed improved associative learning and word list recall, and fewer symptoms of depression. An added bonus: lower glucose levels. While this study used blueberry juice, other studies show that eating blueberries may very well have the same memory-enhancing properties as juice.

Cruciferous vegetables. I hope you like broccoli (or Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, or cabbage). Data from the Nurses’ Health Study indicates that women who ate the most cruciferous vegetables did better on memory tests than women who didn’t eat as much of these vegetables. In fact, the difference was so striking that the cruciferous eaters performed the equivalent of being two years younger (the women were about the same age). These vegetables also seem to slow age-related memory decline. It’s likely that the antioxidants in cruciferous vegetables have a protective effect against oxidative damage that might be responsible for neurodegenerative disorders, including Alzheimer.

Green leafy vegetables. Broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower are great, but don’t overlook the leafy greens — spinach, Swiss chard, kale, arugula, collard greens, and romaine lettuce are all good examples. One of the nutrients in leafy greens is folic acid, a B vitamin that lowers levels of homocysteine (an amino acid linked to stroke and heart attack). What’s the connection with brain health? Having had a stroke practically doubles the risk of getting Alzheimer. Folic acid is found in other foods, too, such as beans, asparagus, fortified cereals, and oranges.

Walnuts. Walnuts fed to rats helped to reverse signs of aging and age-related motor and cognitive defects. These nuts contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid, along with polyphenols, a type of antioxidant. Together, these substances may block the effects of free radicals and prevent compounds that can cause inflammation. Inflammation and oxidative stress are thought to contribute to Alzheimer and other neurodegenerative diseases. Consider eating between 1–1 1/2 ounces of walnuts (about 14–21 walnut halves) daily to keep your mind sharp.

Concord grape juice. Like blueberry juice, Concord grape juice (the purple grape juice) has been shown to improve cognitive function in older adults with mild memory impairment. Other research showed that subjects who drank Concord grape juice at least three times per week were 76% less likely to get Alzheimer than those who drank the juice less than once a week. Looks like purple and blue fruit juices are the way to go!

Besides the foods I mentioned above, it makes sense to focus on getting fruits and vegetables in your daily menu, and choose more healthful fats, such as olive oil, canola oil, and corn oil, over saturated and trans fats. Think of this way of eating as helping your heart and your mind stay in tip-top shape.

Editor’s Note: For some great recipes that will help you incorporate fish into your diet, click here. And to include more vegetables in your daily meals, check out these tasty dishes.

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