Published on: April 28, 2014
by Ellen Ashton-Haiste for Forever Young:
A healthy diet and a healthy brain go hand-in-hand, and can knock years off your ‘brain age’.
The existence of a strong and positive relationship between diet and health, particularly at mid-life and beyond, is far from a new idea. Information abounds about nutrition for heart health, controlling diabetes or warding off diseases like cancer.
But for many people, this stops short of aging brain issues, including cognitive decline and more frightening conditions like Alzheimer’s and other dementias. In fact, there are many foods that can keep our brains healthy as we age, says Leslie Beck, registered dietitian and author of more than a dozen books on nutrition.
“For many of the risk factors for cognitive decline, nutrition and diet play an important role in either preventing them or reducing their effects,” says Beck, who has joined forces with the Women’s Brain Health Initiative to educate Canadians about the relationship between a healthy diet and a healthy brain.
For a broad-based diet strategy that’s heart protective, Beck recommends the Mediterranean diet.
“It’s what we, today, call the gold-standard diet,” she says. “It’s been the focus of many large, long-perspective studies that have linked it to protection from a number of chronic diseases, including Alzheimer’s.”
It’s a plant-based diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes, light on red meat, with the central fat being olive oil. So, it’s a diet high in anti-oxidants, important because the brain is particularly vulnerable to oxidative stress. Since it uses vast amounts of oxygen, it’s a primary breeding ground for free radicals, which are controlled by anti-oxidants, Beck explains.
Food from the sea
Fish, also a Mediterranean diet staple, is important as a source of Omega 3 fatty acids, particularly DHA, essential for good brain function, Beck says.
This Omega 3 comprises a large proportion of the brain cells’ communicating membranes. “If you have more Omega 3 fats in your brain cell membranes, it keeps them flexible so memory messages get passed more easily between them,” she says.
Beck recommends oily fish like salmon, trout and sardines.
DHA is also anti-inflammatory, important because inflammation is another risk factor for cognitive decline, she says. Vegetarians and non-fish-lovers can get DHA in a supplement made from algae, “which is where fish make their DHA from.”
Leafy greens – spinach, kale, Swiss chard, rapini, arugula – high in anti-oxidants, are another key brain food.
Beck cites a large Chicago study that followed older adults and linked those who ate more than two vegetable servings a day with a 40-per-cent-slower rate of age-related cognitive decline. “And when they looked at which veggies seemed to offer the most protection, it was leafy greens.”
If those greens are sauteed in a vegetable oil, there may be extra protection, Beck says. Some oils – particularly sunflower, safflower or grape seed – are great sources of vitamin E, a potent anti-oxidant, she explains.
Other good sources include hazelnuts, peanuts and peanut butter.
Berries – blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, cranberries, cherries, even pomegranate seeds and red grapes – get an A-grade as well. They are high in polyphenols, another category of anti-oxidants that fall under the umbrella of flavanoids.
Polyphenols, Beck says, activate the brain’s “natural house-cleaning process” by triggering cells called microglia, that remove toxins that build up with age. “If we allow them to build up, these microglia aren’t doing their job properly and that can impair brain function.”
B for brain
B vitamins – particularly folate, B6 and B12 – are important to good brain function, Beck says. “There have been a number of studies showing that low blood levels of those B vitamins is a greater risk for cognitive impairment and also stroke.”
And in seniors, a low B12 level has been shown to accelerate cognitive decline.
B6 is found in meat, poultry, bananas avocados and B12 occurs naturally only in animal foods, like meat, poultry, fish, dairy and eggs.
Best sources of folate include cooked spinach, cooked lentils, black beans, asparagus, broccoli, avocado and artichoke.
Supplements are an acceptable source for these vitamins, she adds.
Tastes to tempt your brain
“I chose some of my favourite brain-healthy foods to come up with these recipes. Not only do they incorporate specific food items known to benefit the brain, but they also are delicious, which will entice home cooks to make them staples among their ‘go-to’ meals.”
So says Toronto celebrity chef Mark McEwan about three recipes he donated to the Memory Morsels project of the Women’s Brain Health Initiative.
McEwan is no stranger to Canadian foodies. The country’s youngest-ever executive chef at Toronto’s upscale Sutton Place Hotel, he’s now owner of the trendy resto bar Fabbrica and a television personality as the head judge on The Food Network’s Top Chef Canada.
Visit memorymorsels.com to locate recipes for:
• Coffee and Cocoa Rubbed Bison Tenderloin with Blueberry Shallot Chutney
• Spinach Salad With Tuna, Radishes And Cara Cara Oranges
• Kale, Sausage and Bean Soup
Morsels of Goodness
The Memory Morsels program raises awareness of the link between healthy eating and healthy brains while raising money for research into women’s brain health.
Fact: Dark chocolate increases blood flow to the brain.
Fact: Dark chocolate sharpens mental focus.
Fact: Coffee reduces Alzheimer-like cognitive impairment.
Fact: Red grapes and red wine prevent memory loss.
“Any organization that promotes wine, coffee and chocolate as being good for the brain, I’m there!” says Debbie Bullock, host and proponent of Memory Morsels, a program of the Women’s Brain Health Initiative (WBHI) that aims to raise awareness of the link between healthy eating and healthy brains while raising money for research into women’s brain health.
The WBHI officially launched a year ago, with a two-pronged mandate, founder and president Lynn Posluns explains. It’s focusing attention on the fact that women are twice as likely to succumb to aging brain diseases, like Alzheimer’s, but the bulk of research to date has focused on male brains, and it’s raising funds to level that playing field. Its other goal is to educate men and women about how to stay brain-healthy as long as possible.
The Memory Morsels program meets both mandates, Posluns believes. Built on the home-party model, it encourages get-togethers where guests can learn about foods that promote brain health and experience them in a variety of delicious concoctions. And, they have the opportunity to contribute to the fundraising effort.
“Rather than bring a hostess gift, they might make a donation,” Posluns says.
The Memory Morsels website provides everything a prospective host needs to put together a party, from recipes to fact cards, printable invitations, even menus and shopping lists.
“There’s lots of foodies out there, who care about nutrition and their health,” Posluns says. “We thought if we could influence people through food and educate them about the fact that food plays a role in brain health, then what a great way to expose people to what we’re doing (at WBHI). Sort of backing into women’s brain health through food.”
The idea resonated with Bullock, a life insurance broker and founder of Savvy Sense, a program of interactive workshops to educate women about financial matters.
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