Food for thought: The best healthy-aging diet for your brain
Without realizing it, you’ve already visited a place — multiple times — that can protect your brain’s memory power as you age.
The pharmacy? A clinic? No, it’s the grocery store.
As science discovers new links between food and memory function, nutrition has become a promising force in the fight against age-related cognitive decline. The choices you make in supermarket aisles today could help you make easier trips down memory lane when you’re older.
Here’s some of the freshest research on baking better brain health right into your daily meal plan.
Weight gain and brain drain
Obesity could be a red flag for future cognitive decline. A 2020 British study discovered that people who are obese in middle age face a 31 per cent higher risk of dementia later in life. Analyzing their findings, the researchers theorized that being overweight may cause inflammation throughout the body, including the brain.
The U.K. team noted that three other conditions closely linked to obesity — heart disease, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes — also occur more frequently in Alzheimer’s patients, with inflammation playing a harmful role in all four conditions.
Berry good news
Berries are chock-full of anthocyanins, powerful antioxidants that stimulate the hippocampus, a part of the brain that’s crucial for learning and memory.
In a Harvard experiment, older women who ate at least a half a cup of blueberries or one cup of strawberries per week had a rate of memory decline similar to women two-and-a-half years younger.
Nutty but true
The idea that just one palmful of snack food per day can slow your brain’s aging process might sound nuts, but scientists say a quarter cup of walnuts per day meets your recommended daily quota for omega-3 fatty acids. These protect the brain from inflammation and aid neurotransmission.
The MIND diet
MIND stands for Mediterranean-DASH Diet Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay. That’s a mouthful to say, but it’s based on evidence that the food we eat affects our cognitive performance in older age.
MIND combines aspects of two nutritional regimens:
- The Mediterranean diet — based on foods traditionally consumed in the Mediterranean region — proven to reduce heart disease
- DASH — Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension — proven to lower high blood pressure
Since heart disease and hypertension both increase the risk of dementia, doctors believe MIND promotes brain health by incorporating common elements of the DASH and Mediterranean diets.
Key MIND recommendations include:
- Fish — one serving per week (rich in omega-3 fatty acids that reduce inflammation and promote brain function)
- Poultry — two servings per week (high in choline, essential for memory and other cognitive functions)
- Nuts — five servings per week
- Whole grains — three or more servings per day (high in folates, which boost memory and reduce inflammation)
- Berries — at least two servings per week
- Leafy green vegetables — at least six servings per week (rich in folates and antioxidants like vitamin C)
- Other vegetables — at least one serving per day
- Beans — three servings per week (regulate glucose supply to the brain, and are high in folates)
- Extra virgin olive oil (high in antioxidants)
- Wine — one glass per day (red wine in particular can improve cognitive performance)
… and limiting the intake of:
- Red meat (increases inflammation in the body)
- Butter, cheese and other dairy that’s high in saturated fats (these can raise your risk of heart disease and dementia)
- Pastries, candy and sugary drinks including juice (by boosting blood sugar levels, they increase diabetes and dementia risk)
- Processed and deep-fried foods (high carbs and fatty oils promote inflammation, high cholesterol and diabetes; all increase dementia risk)
Adhering to the MIND diet delayed cognitive decline by five years in one study and lowered the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by 53 per cent.
Hungry for more?
That’s a lot of information to digest, but don’t bite off more than you can chew. Make small, gradual adjustments over time. Remember that brain-healthy food requires no prescription, is readily available, can be tailored to your budget and can be immensely enjoyable, especially when shared in a meal with others.
If you’re looking for some inspiration in the kitchen, check out our upcoming classes, including Food for Thought.