Can food help keep your brain healthy as you age?

Older hands cutting vegetables
Photo by drobotdean on freepik.

Did you ever consider how nutrition affected your brain when you were younger? I didn’t think so! But does this sound familiar to you? You walk into a room and can’t remember why you’re there. Or you need to make a hair appointment but can’t recall the name of the salon. Even the “Where are my glasses? Oh, they’re on my head!” cliché rings true to life for lots of people around the age of 50 or so. Taken alone, none of these “senior moments” is too upsetting, but when they become more frequent, it dawns on you that your brain isn’t working quite like it used to. When these incidents start to interfere with your daily life and functioning, it’s called dementia. Dementia ranges from mild to severe, and is generally more common as people get older. Wouldn’t it be great if making some pretty simple dietary changes could help keep our brains healthy as we age?

A healthy lifestyle can help offset genetic risk for dementia.

A study of the impact of healthy lifestyle on the risk of dementia was published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The interesting part of the study was that the researchers looked at whether following a healthy lifestyle (including diet, alcohol consumption, smoking, and physical activity), could lower the risk of dementia regardless of genetic risk. Their results are good news for consumers—having a healthy lifestyle did indeed reduce dementia risk for those at higher genetic risk, and it also helped those at lower genetic risk, too. Dietary factors impact dementia risk independently of genetics. So, there are brain benefits to be had from healthy eating for everyone.

Eat more and less of these foods for brain health.

There’s a saying among those healthcare professionals who integrate nutrition into their care for adults, and that is “What’s good for the heart is good for the brain.” Based on this concept, researchers have been able to look at specific foods and eating patterns that may bring benefits to the brain. One style of eating has emerged as being protective, and that is the Mediterranean-style diet, which I’ve covered before if you want more information on it. Specifically, studies on cardio-metabolic health indicate that the specific foods recommended in both the Mediterranean eating style and the MIND Diet are the same ones that may benefit brain health and cognitive ability.

Eat more:

  • Fruits
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Vegetables, especially leafy greens (and including legumes)
  • Whole grains
  • Fish and shellfish
  • Dairy products, especially yogurt and cheese
  • Vegetable oils (in place of solid fats)

Eat less:

  • Refined grains/starches/sweet baked goods
  • Processed meats
  • Unprocessed red meats
  • Trans fats (from some stick margarines, commercial baked goods, snack foods and deep-fried foods)
  • Sugar-sweetened beverages
  • Sodium (limit to 2,000mg/day)

What’s so good about those foods?

Natural components of the foods in the “Eat More” list above are being studied for their impact on various aspects of brain health and cognition, including maintaining the physical structure of the brain and preserving cognitive abilities like memory. There is encouraging evidence, for example, that the omega-3s in fish may help the brain because of their impact on the health of the cardiovascular system. The flavanol compounds in berries (such as the anthocyanins that give blueberries their color) seem to be the key to what appears to be an ability to help preserve cognition (or delay cognitive losses). And, it’s generally accepted that there is a link between gut health and brain health, which makes a case for probiotics such as those found in yogurt, and a fiber-filled diet (fiber provides food for healthy gut bacteria).

The way you cook matters, too.

Once you’ve got those healthy foods into your fridge and pantry, be sure not to undo their benefits by preparing them in an unhealthy manner. Skip the frying and opt for baking instead. Using an air fryer can approximate the crispy exterior fried “experience” without the detrimental effects of deep-frying. Weaning yourself off the use of solid fats like butter and margarine to the point where a variety of oils are your staple fats will help keep your salad dressings and sautéing in a better place health-wise, too. Overall, aim for simple cooking techniques so that those healthy foods will be more likely to stay that way.

Remember that just eating more of a particular food is not as important as adopting an overall healthy eating pattern (here are some ideas for starting to do just that). With some attention and making step-wise changes to your diet, you can gradually move yourself toward an eating pattern that will support brain health—as well as total body health—for your lifetime.