As you get older, as you turn 30 or 40, your brain changes; it begins to shrink and continues to do so throughout your life. This shrinkage can lead to changes in your cognitive abilities, which can become a cause for concern when it comes to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
But don’t we all know someone in their late 80s or 90s who is quick-witted with a memory like an elephant? Why did these people avoid what seems to be an inevitable part of aging? Genetics has something to do with it, but more and more research suggests that so does diet. Neuroinflammation can potentially be adjusted based on how we eat.
“While we don’t have a nutritional cure for dementia today, there are now many studies that point to different ways in which food can play an important role in preventing or slowing cognitive decline,” says Uma Naidoo, MDnutritional psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, director of nutritional and metabolic psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, author of This is Your Brain on Food: An Essential Guide to Surprising Foods That Fight Depression, PTSD, ADHD, Anxiety, OCT and More, and qualified chef. “Our food choices can certainly help preserve our memories and clear our minds of the brain fog that sometimes disrupts the clarity of our lives.”
Naidoo claims that diets high in fats and sugars can negatively affect the hippocampus, the part of the brain most involved in forming relationship memories. On the other hand, the right kinds of foods can protect memory. Dr. Naidoo explains some key eating habits that can slow brain aging.
Instead of cutting calories, you can focus on eating foods that have been shown to support brain health. Fortunately, researchers have come up with a diet called the MIND diet. “MIND” stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay. It’s a combination of the Mediterranean-style diet and a diet designed to lower blood pressure and the DASH diet, or dietary approaches to stopping hypertension.
“Important features of the MIND diet are that it is low in saturated fat, high in healthy oils, and red meat is eaten rarely, twice or less per week,” says Naidoo.
If calorie restriction or the MIND diet is too daunting, Naidoo recommends simply filling your plate with the best memory-protecting foods. Start with green leafy vegetables like lettuce that makes up salads, kale, collard greens and spinach. Eat several servings daily.
“I highlight leafy greens because they contain folate, vitamin E, carotenoids and flavonoids, nutrients that protect against cognitive decline,” Naidoo says.
Microgreens are even richer in nutrients, as well as leafy greens that are harvested right after germination. “Microgreens contain up to 40 times more nutrients than their mature counterparts,” she adds.
Aim for at least three servings a day of colorful polyphenol-rich vegetables, such as yellow and red peppers, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, peas, beets, squash and eggplant. Cruciferous vegetables, like broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts, are also high in an anti-inflammatory compound called sulforaphane, which studies show may protect against diseases that affect the brain.
The colorful berries are a concentrated source of flavonoids and other brain-beneficial nutrients.
“Studies have shown that diets high in blueberries reduce free radicals and inflammation in the brain,” says Naidoo.
Walnuts are also neuroprotective. “Vitamin E in peanut butter, dry-roasted almonds, hazelnuts, and sunflower seeds may help people with stress, anxiety, and symptoms of PTSD,” she continues.
“Extra virgin olive oil — a heart-healthy fat — is a source of at least 30 phenolic compounds that are powerful antioxidants and brain protectors,” says Naidoo.
A 2019 study published in the journal Molecules found that a cooking technique using extra virgin olive oil to make sofrito, a savory appetizer for many dishes, enhances the extraction of brain-protecting polyphenols from sautéed vegetables, such as onion, garlic, peppers, tomatoes and chillies.
In 2019, a meta-analysis of double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trials in patients with major depressive disorder showed that taking omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) relieved depression compared to placebo .
“Omega-3 fatty acids support brain health by lowering inflammatory markers and protecting neurons from excessive inflammation,” says Naidoo.
The best sources of omega-3s are cold-water fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, and sardines. However, you can also enjoy omega-3 fortified foods like eggs and find omega-3s in plant sources like edamame, walnuts, and chia seeds.
Get in the habit of amplifying flavors in your cooking without adding calories and boosting your brain.
“Turmeric, pepper, cinnamon saffron, rosemary, ginger and other spices have been shown to aid memory,” says Naidoo.
Turmeric, the active ingredient in curcumin, is the star of the spice show. A 2019 review of animal studies in Current neuropharmacology showed that curcumin could possibly reverse some brain damage caused by Alzheimer’s disease. Another study published the same year found improvements in attention, cognition, and memory in people taking 90 to 1,500 milligrams of turmeric over 53 weeks.
“When taking turmeric, combine it with black pepper. Black pepper can aid in the absorption of curcumin,” says Naidoo.
“Excessive alcohol consumption increases the risk of all types of cognitive impairment and dementia,” warns Naidoo.
However, Naidoo points to a 2019 meta-analysis of 28 studies which found that light to moderate alcohol consumption in middle and late adulthood was associated with a decreased risk of all types of disorders. cognitive and dementia.
“If you drink alcohol, I always recommend moderation,” advises Naidoo. “Alcohol can have many negative health effects, so talk to your doctor about other risk factors.”
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