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Published on: March 23, 2012
You can help keep your brain healthy with these six foods — plus a dose of sunshine
by Michael Haederle for AARP
The food you eat may have a lot to do with how healthy your brain stays as you age, according to the latest nutritional research.
People in their late 80s with higher blood levels of B-complex vitamins, vitamins C, D and E, as well as the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, showed less mental impairment and brain shrinkage typical of Alzheimer’s disease, according to a new study led by Gene Bowman, a scientist at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland.
Meanwhile, a University of Miami study of 1,091 men and women who ate a Mediterranean diet, including vegetables, fruits, small amounts of meat and fish, whole grains, nuts, olive oil and moderate amounts of alcohol, found they had less small blood-vessel damage in the brain. Studies have also highlighted the apparent dementia-fighting benefits of leafy greens and vegetables such as cabbage and cauliflower.
What you don’t eat matters, too. Artery-clogging trans fats are a clear no-no, and a recent Mayo Clinic study of 1,233 older men and women found that simply limiting food intake to fewer than 2,150 calories a day was linked to better brain health.
Further research is needed to confirm the diet-brain health link, scientists stress. Meanwhile, it’s probably not just a matter of getting more of a particular nutrient, Bowman says, but in following a balanced diet. “There are hundreds or thousands of different molecules in foods we eat,” he says. “It’s really complex.”
Mary Ann Johnson, a nutrition scientist at the University of Georgia and a national spokesperson for the American Society for Nutrition, agrees. “It really reinforces how fundamental healthy eating is to our well-being,” she says.
Meanwhile, here are some ways to make sure you get the right mix of ingredients in your diet to help protect your brain;
1. Get full o’ beans
Beans and green peas provide a rich dietary source of B-complex vitamins (plus, they provide plenty of protein and fiber). Vitamin B-1 (thiamine), which may affect blood sugar levels, and folic acid, which is important for a healthy nervous system, are often found in enriched grain products and cereals.
But older adults should consider taking B-12 supplements, Johnson says, especially if they are among the one-third of people who have been infected with a bug that can cause ulcers, because the infection limits the stomach’s ability to extract B-12 from food. Meat, poultry, fish, dairy and fortified cereals are also excellent B-12 sources.
A 2010 University of Oxford study, meanwhile, found that people diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment who took a supplement containing folic acid and vitamins B-6 and B-12 for two years lowered their levels of homocysteine, an amino acid that has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease, and showed less brain shrinkage than those receiving dummy pills.
2. Don’t forget citrus
Oranges and orange juice are a convenient and inexpensive source of ascorbic acid (aka Vitamin C), as are tangerines, limes, lemons and other citrus fruits. Surprisingly, sweet peppers, strawberries, cantaloupes, tomatoes, broccoli, leafy greens, lettuce and cabbage also can raise your C level. People who are taking prescription medications should avoid grapefruit juice, nutritionists and other health experts caution, because it may unpredictably alter the effects of many drugs.
Vitamin C is an antioxidant, essential for healthy skin and blood vessel functioning — but its benefits may run deeper. Last summer, Swedish scientists at Lund University reported that in laboratory mice, vitamin C actually dissolves toxic plaques of the kind that accumulate in the brains of human Alzheimer’s patients.
That followed on a 2004 Johns Hopkins University study showing that men and women who took multivitamins containing vitamins C and E were less likely to develop Alzheimer’s. A 2009 Harvard Medical School study also found a possible protective effect for the brain from long-term vitamin C use in a study of 2,824 women.
3. Add in some almonds
Vitamin E is an antioxidant that works on a molecular level to promote healthy blood vessels. Given the brain’s craving for oxygen-rich blood, it’s easy to see why E is such an important part of a brain-healthy diet — and studies have shown that people with the highest blood levels of Vitamin E have a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Vitamin E occurs naturally in almonds, other nuts and avocados, but the most common sources are healthy vegetable oils, like olive, canola and sunflower.
Some green vegetables, like spinach, broccoli and collards, also provide this nutrient. But it’s important to get your vitamin E from food, and avoid mega-doses from supplements, because some studies have tied high-dose supplements to serious medical conditions, such as prostate cancer. “In foods, there are at least eight different chemical forms of vitamin E,” Johnson says. “We think they all do something a little different.”
4. Go fishin’
Scientists have conducted thousands of studies of omega-3 fatty acids in recent decades. These polyunsaturated “healthy fats” reduce inflammation in the body and seem to help the heart function.
UCLA scientists who took blood samples and performed MRI scans on 1,575 people recently reported that people with lower omega-3 levels in their red blood had more brain shrinkage and poorer performance on memory tests. Bowman thinks omega-3s help prevent a type of dementia that is driven by blood vessel disease by healing the blood vessels themselves.
The best dietary sources are oily cold-water fish, such as salmon, herring and mackerel, eaten once or twice a week, Johnson says. Those who don’t eat fish should consult their doctor about whether to take fish-oil supplements, because fish oil also acts as a blood thinner, she says. People typically are advised take one to three fish-oil capsules per day.
5. Savor spinach
Popeye’s favorite snack is a winner in the Dark Leafy Green category. It’s rich in vitamins A and K, folic acid and iron, plus it’s versatile: It can be eaten raw in salads, baked, steamed or stir-fried. Spinach is also packed with at least 15 different antioxidant compounds known as flavonoids, which have been shown to inhibit the formation of the beta-amyloid plaques that build up in those with Alzheimer’s disease.
Harvard researchers reported in 2005 that women in the long-running Nurses’ Health Study who ate eight servings of green, leafy vegetables a week (along with five servings of cruciferous vegetables, such as cabbage, broccoli or kale) showed less cognitive decline than those who ate less. It wasn’t clear, however, whether that was due to the greens themselves or to other factors, such as the wholesale substitution of vegetables for fatty foods.
6. Coffee craving
Java addicts everywhere likely rejoiced at word of the 2009 University of South Florida study showing that caffeinated coffee decreased blood levels of a plaque-forming protein and even reduced Alzheimer’s-like cognitive impairment — in genetically altered mice. Decaf did not have the same benefits, however. The Florida scientists also showed that beta-amyloid protein levels dropped in elderly people without dementia after they were given caffeine.
7. Get some sun
Fat-soluble vitamin D plays a vital role in regulating our immune system and how our cells use calcium, so its effects are felt throughout the body — including the brain. UCLA scientists have found that when paired with curcumin the active ingredient in the spice turmeric , vitamin D may help trigger the immune system to clear Alzheimer’s plaques in brain tissue. Salmon, sardines, eggs and fortified foods like milk and soy products are good dietary sources for this important nutrient.
Our bodies make D naturally whenever our skin is exposed to sunlight, but this ability declines as we age, so many older people are vitamin D-deficient. Just 15 minutes of bathing sunscreen-free arms and legs in the sun a few times a week generates plenty of the vitamin. If you can’t spend a little time in the sun, nutritionists suggest a vitamin D supplement: 600 to 800 international units (I.U.) a day will suffice for most people, but your doctor may recommend 1,000, 2,000 or even 4,000 I.U. per day, Johnson says. Vitamin D3 (also known as cholecalciferol) is the most common supplement, but vegans can benefit from plant-derived Vitamin D2.
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