What to Feed Your Brain
Alzheimer's Disease is the most common form of dementia and the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States. It's a progressive, irreversible disorder in which the brain's nerve cells degenerate, causing problems with memory, thinking, and behavior. Symptoms typically develop slowly, worsen over time, and interfere with daily tasks. Yes, genes are involved, but fewer than 5% of Alzheimer's cases are directly caused by genetics. The medical community has yet to identify a cause, and there is no effective long-term treatment. We do know this: The brains of Alzheimer's patients contain abnormal deposits of proteins, called amyloid plaques and tangles. The plaques build up around the brain's nerve cells while tangles form inside the cells, leading to blocked communication between brain cells and, eventually, cell death.
Determining what causes this buildup of plaques and tangles is key to finding a treatment. Two factors that appear to play a role are oxidative damage by free radicals and inflammation. Both of these are symptoms associated with the natural aging process, but they're also impacted by lifestyle. In addition, a lack of adequate blood flow due to brain cell death slowly limits healthy cells from getting the oxygen and glucose they need to function properly, and there's speculation that insulin resistance may be contributing to this. Bottom line: Memory and cognition suffer. So what can you do now to start preventing mental decline? Focus on foods and habits that can boost your brain health.
Eating fish like tuna and salmon once a week has been shown to slow decline in those with the Alzheimer’s gene, thanks to the high content of omega-3 DHA fatty acid, which reduces oxidative stress and slows plaque buildup. Low levels of omega-3 fatty acids in the diet have been associated with increased risk of depression and cognitive decline.
Suggested Intake: At least 1 (4-to 6-ounce) serving per week
MIND researchers focused fruit intake solely on berries, all of which are packed with antioxidants. Blueberries’ levels lead the list, appearing to help protect sensitive brain cells from harmful free radicals.
Suggested Intake: At least 2 cups per week
Walnuts are a top nut for brain health, but all nuts offer potential brain benefits thanks to the powerful combo of omega-3s, vitamin E, and antioxidants.
Suggested Intake: 1 ounce at least 5 days a week
These are natural brain boosters, containing B vitamins and phytochemicals as well as a good supply of glucose, the brain's top fuel source. The brain can't store glucose, so it relies on a steady supply of it from the body, which beans can provide.
Suggested Intake: Include with 4 or more meals a week.
5. Dark Leafy Greens
Eating them may be one of the best ways to maintain proper brain function and to slow dementia development. They're packed with folate and phytochemicals, both of which have been linked to a lower risk of mental decline. Folate deficiency is associated with depression and possible cognitive impairment.
Suggested Intake: At least 6 cups weekly
6. Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
This contains oleocanthal, which boosts the production of key enzymes that help break down the plaques associated with Alzheimer's. A study published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease found that olive oil improved learning and memory by reversing oxidative damage in the brains of mice.
Suggested Intake: Use often
Several studies link moderate alcohol intake with improved memory and possible even lower Alzheimer's risk—moderation being key. Red wine may offer even more brain benefits due to resveratrol, a compound in red grapes that may help reduce amyloid buildup in the brain.
Suggested Intake: No more than 1 glass a day.
8. Green Tea
This antioxidant-rich beverage appears to be one of the best ways to keep the brain hydrated thanks to the compounds called catechins. Not only do catechins appear to be some of the most effective antioxidants in preventing free radical damage, but some research suggests they can help block amyloid plaque formation.
Suggested Intake: Drink regularly
Harvard researchers found that people who drink 3 to 5 cups of coffee (caffeinated or decaf) a day may have a lower risk of developing neurological diseases and type 2 diabetes. Coffee lovers can thank chlorogenic acid, a compound in coffee that acts as an anti-inflammatory and decreases cells' insulin resistance. Caffeine also blocks adenosine, a chemical that inhibits the activity of nerve cells; several studies correlate caffeine intake with higher scores on memory tests.
Suggested Intake: Less than 4 cups a day
10. Dark Chocolate
The satisfying bittersweet bite is rich in flavonoids, which help create neurons and have been shown to improve cognitive function. It also encourages the release of endorphins, which elevate your mood. For maximum flavonoid benefit, choose a dark chocolate that contains 60% cacao or higher.
Suggested intake: Enjoy a 1-ounce treat occasionally
11. Fermented Foods
The exact impact that our gut microbes have on the brain is unclear, but adding bacteria diversity with diet is one of the best ways to encourage a healthy gut. Do this by eating more probiotics, prebiotics, and fermented foods, such as yogurt, kimchi, kombucha, miso, and sauerkraut. Fermented foods also contain high concentrations of vitamin K, which may be a factor in slowing the development of Alzheimer's because of its key role in the synthesis of important lipids.
Suggested Intake: Eat several times a week
This vibrant yellow spice from India is gaining popularity in alternative medicine. It contains a compound call curcumin, which not only gives the root its bright orange-yellow hue but also lends a distinctly earthy, peppery flavor to curry powders. In a 2012 Ohio State University study, curcumin reduced amyloid accumulation in the brains of middle-aged subjects. Residents of India have low rates of Alzheimer's, a statistic that some associate with the region's high levels of turmeric intake.
Suggested Intake: Incorporate 1 or 2 turmeric dishes (such as curry) a week
13. Foods Rich in B Vitamins
Low levels of folate and B12 are associated with increased risk for Alzheimer's and dementia. Some studies suggest that taking supplements of these vitamins may actually slow brain deterioration, but more data are needed. Eating foods rich in folate and B12 is an easy way to protect your brain: Make sure you're getting lots of greens, whole grains, and lean protein, including shellfish (like clams).
Suggested Intake: These foods have loads of other benefits; should be diet staples
High in protein and low in calories (6g protein and 70 calories per large egg), eggs are also a good source of vitamin D and choline, two nutrients key for brain health. It's estimated up to 75% of us don't get enough vitamin D—a scary fact in light of recent study that found that older adults who were moderately deficient in vitamin D had a 53% increased risk of developing Alzheimer's. Choline helps stimulate neurotransmitters and regulate metabolism.
Suggested Intake: Up to 1 a day for healthy adults; up to 3 a week for those with heart disease or diabetes
15. Coconut Oil
This plant oil is rich in medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), a type of fat that may boost ketone levels. One theory holds that ketones may be a substitute energy source for glucose when brain cells become insulin resistant due to Alzheimer's. No research has proven the brain-boosting benefits of coconut oil, though anecdotal testimonials abound about the efficacy of Bulletproof, a coffee blend with a coconut oil derivative and butter said to increase alertness and focus.
Suggested Intake: Coconut oil is predominantly saturated fat, and sat fat has been linked to an increased dementia risk. There's also no evidence that MCTs in coconut oil have an impact on brain health. However, several clinical trials looking at potential effects on dementia and Alzheimer's are currently being conducted, so stay tuned.