Many of us have experienced moments when we forgot why we entered a room, or when we could not recall the name of a person we’ve met before. The older we get, the more moments like these may trigger concern about the health of our brains. Fortunately, there are things we can do to help support brain health, and healthy eating is one of them. Eating certain foods and avoiding others has been shown to slow brain aging and lessen the chances of developing Alzheimer’s disease. A 2018 report from the Global Council on Brain Health, an independent group convened by the AARP, noted that foods and diets that are good for heart health are also good for brain health.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than 6 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease. By 2050, this number is projected to rise to nearly 13 million. The risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias are similar to those of coronary heart disease. They include poor diet, physical inactivity, obesity, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, diabetes, and smoking. Addressing these risk factors is extremely important to maintaining brain health. Even in people with Alzheimer’s disease, a healthy vascular system may delay cognitive impairment and slow the rate of decline. There are several diets that have shown a correlation to improved brain health.
The Mediterranean-style diet comes out on top in the U.S. News and World Report’s annual ranking of best diets and is touted as one of the healthiest by many reputable health organizations and registered dietitians. This diet emphasizes vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans and legumes, includes low-fat or fat-free dairy products, fish, poultry, non-tropical vegetable oils and nuts, and limits added sugars, sugary beverages, sodium, highly processed foods, refined carbohydrates, saturated fats, and fatty or processed meats. A 2018 study estimated it provided 1.5 to 3.5 years of protection against the development of biomarkers for Alzheimer’s disease.
Another commonly studied dietary pattern for brain health is the MIND diet (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay). MIND is based on a combination of the heart-healthy Mediterranean and the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diets. In one study, 923 participants, ages 58 to 98 years, were followed for an average of 4.5 years. Those who loosely followed the MIND diet plan experienced a 35 percent lower risk of Alzheimer’s Disease (compared to a 53 percent reduction in risk among those who followed the diet more closely).
With the MIND diet, the recommended guidelines focus more on plant-based foods that are minimally processed and limits animal-based foods that are high in saturated fats as well as foods with added sugars. The MIND diet principles include 10 food groups you should eat and some you should limit. Aim to eat these foods:
- Green leafy vegetables: Researchers found that leafy greens like kale, collards, spinach, or lettuce were specifically shown to lower the risk of dementia and cognitive decline. Greens are packed with nutrients linked to better brain health like folate, vitamin E, carotenoids, and flavonoids.
- Berries: This type of fruit seemed to soar above all the others when researchers looked at diet and brain health. This is thought to be because of the high level of flavonoids in berries.
- Nuts: Nuts may be high in calories and fat, but they’re packed with fat-soluble vitamin E, known for its brain-protective qualities. Just watch your portion size.
- Olive oil (daily): Use this as a healthy source of fat to cook your foods and to drizzle on salads and cooked vegetables.
- Whole grains (3 or more servings per day): Examples include whole wheat bread, oats, barley, farro, and bran.
- Fish/seafood (1 or more servings per week): Choose fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring, and sardines.
- Beans (4 or more servings per week): Swap meat-based meals for protein-packed beans and legumes for a healthy substitute.
- Poultry (2 or more servings per week): Choose lean, white meat poultry and throw away the skin.
- Wine (one glass per day): Given the risks of alcohol, it’s probably not a good idea to start drinking it just for the possible brain benefit. However, if you enjoy a glass of wine with dinner, you can continue this habit on the MIND diet.
While you don’t have to completely cut out meat and dairy from your meals, the diet recommends eating them sparingly and choosing lean protein options and low-fat dairy, and you should aim to eat these foods less than four times a week. The MIND diet also limits servings of red meat and processed meat, sweets, cheese, butter, and margarine as well as fast foods and fried foods.
Despite the fact that nearly nine in 10 adults say they would eat a healthy diet if they were aware that it could reduce their risk of cognitive decline, heart disease, or diabetes, most Americans do not eat adequately for brain health, an AARP study concluded. The investigation was designed to understand and explore the relationship between nutrition and healthy eating with brain health. A survey of 2,033 adults aged 40 and older found that virtually no one surveyed consumed the recommended number of servings in all five food groups and one-third of those surveyed did not consume the recommended amount in ANY food group.
Executive Director at The Inn at Fairview Memory Care, Greg Batchelder, BS, NHA, CADDCT, points out that, “Some memory lapses are normal as you age, such as forgetting where you put the keys or a word at the tip of your tongue that you can’t retrieve. However, serious memory decline is not a given. You can keep your mind sharp and reduce the risk of serious memory impairments by concentrating on what you eat. Your diet, along with a few other lifestyle factors, can shape the way your brain functions and improve cognitive thinking skills, like your ability to learn something new, absorb important details, problem solve, complete complex tasks, and think critically.”
Don’t wait for signs that your memory is slipping before you address your brain health. Optimize your brain function by eating a nutritious, well-rounded diet rich in fruit, vegetables, legumes and whole grains. In addition, avoid saturated fat, fast food, and processed foods to reduce your risk for dementia-related conditions.
National Institutes of Health
The Alzheimer’s Association
Global Council on Brain Health