The brain is a powerful operating system, tasked with filtering incoming information, making split second decisions, retrieving information from our memory banks and controlling both our conscious actions and autonomic body functions when we’re awake and asleep. Representing just two percent of the body’s mass, the brain is power hungry, requiring more than 20 percent of the body’s calorie intake. We’ve long known that what we feed our bodies has a major impact on our physical health. What is becoming increasingly clear is the link between what we eat and brain health as we age. Scientists are moving toward the belief that what’s good for the heart is also good for the brain.
A study of rats fed a diet high in cholesterol and saturated fat found that, compared to a control group, those on the high fat diet showed negative effects on memory and other brain functions. This seems to be also true for humans. A study at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston [Annals of Neurology], found that women who reported eating the highest levels of saturated fat from red meat and butter performed worse on tests of thinking and memory than women who ate the lowest amounts of saturated fat. This raises the question: if a high fat diet is bad for the brain, can healthy eating make a difference?
Research is now focused on the effects of antioxidants on the aging brain. Oxidative stress, the build up of free radicals in the brain over time, is believed to play a role in the development of Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s dementia.A laboratory study designed to determine the role of antioxidants in brain changes associated with aging, fed rats a blueberry rich diet. Older rats eating a blueberry-rich diet performed comparably to younger rats on tests of memory and better than the older rats eating a regular diet. Another study found positive results in women eating an antioxidant rich diet. A group of women who ate two or more servings of blueberries and strawberries daily were able to delay the effects of memory decline by two and a half years compared with a control group. A study, published in Neurology [May, 2015] monitored the eating habits of 27,860 men and women in 40 countries over a five year period. Subjects reported on their food intake and completed tests of thinking and memory at the beginning of the study and after two and five years.
Researchers found that those who ate the healthiest diets were 24 percent less likely to show cognitive decline compared with those with the least healthy eating habits. The healthiest eaters tended to be slightly older, more active, less likely to smoke and to have lower BMIs. While saturated fats and trans fats appear to be bad for both the heart and the brain, the brain is dependent on healthy fats to carry out multiple brain and nerve functions. Omega 3 fatty acids, believed to improve memory, can be found in fatty fish such as salmon, Bluefin tuna, sardines, herring, fish oil supplements, seaweed, walnuts, and pumpkin and flax seeds. Omega 6s, more plentiful in the typical American diet, can be found in corn, soybean and sunflower oil as well as nuts and seeds.
Although scientists still lack definitive proof for a brain healthy diet, the evidence is mounting in favor of a number of healthy choices.
Blueberries and other dark colored berries such as blackberries, cherries, acai and goji berries are high in antioxidants and flavonoids.
Beans and legumes are rich in folate, a B vitamin associated with brain health. They are also a source of omega fatty acids.
Dark green leafy vegetables such as kale and spinach are good sources of folate and vitamin E to help prevent damage to DNA.
Tomatoes are a good source of lycopene, a powerful antioxidant.
Nuts are nutritional powerhouses and a good source of vitamin E.
The Mediterranean diet brings together many of these separate elements into an eating plan that is relatively easy to follow. This diet focuses on fish at least twice a week, limited red meat, olive oil instead of butter, with a focus on fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Although there’s no absolute proof, the Mediterranean diet is associated with lower levels of mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease.
A healthy diet might just provide us with the ultimate win win scenario…providing nutrition that is good for the aging brain as well as the heart. Talk to your primary care physician to assist setting up a proper diet. Visit affinityhealth.org to find a doc nearest you.