You've heard again and again that what you eat can have a major impact on your health. New research suggests that this may hold true for our brains as well.
A heart-healthy diet is emerging as a promising strategy to help ward off such diseases as Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia.
Food for thought
Plenty of questions still remain about the true impact of diet on memory loss. Some researchers suggest that the following strategies may slow down mental decline, but more studies are needed to prove this.
Limit cholesterol and bad fats. Excess cholesterol, as well as saturated and trans fats, is bad for your heart and may also be trouble for your brain. In several studies, the risk of Alzheimer's was almost doubled among those who ate the most saturated fat.
- Diet strategy: Start by choosing lean meats, low- or no-fat dairy, trans-fat-free margarines, and fewer processed foods. Avoid all trans fats.
Increase your "B's." Some research has shown a link between high levels of homocysteine (an amino acid in the blood) and an increased risk of developing Alzheimer's.
- Diet strategy: Vitamin B can lower blood homocysteine levels. Good sources are lean meats, low-fat dairy, green leafy vegetables, beans, and whole grains.
Eat more fatty fish. The same omega-3 fats that protect the heart may also protect the brain. These fats reduce inflammation in the body, a possible risk factor for Alzheimer's.
- Diet strategy: Aim for two 3-ounce servings a week of the fattier salmon, mackerel, or sardines. Also, check with your doctor to see if you can or should take a fish oil supplement.
Eat leafy greens. A high vegetable intake may slow the risk of mental decline, but the relationship seems strongest with green leafy veggies.
- Diet strategy: Stock up on kale, broccoli, mustard greens, and lettuces like romaine and spinach.
Increase vitamin-E rich foods. Research has debunked a previous theory that vitamin E supplements may help keep the brain healthy. Experts have not ruled out the impact of vitamin-E-rich foods, though.
- Diet strategy: Use vegetable oils (olive and canola) and eat more nuts, seeds, green leafy vegetables, and whole grains.
Keep an eye on blood sugar. Many studies have linked a decline in memory to pre-diabetes and diabetes. It may take its toll by harming the small blood vessels in the brain.
- Diet strategy: Watch intake of sugars and white flour, and get plenty of fiber-rich foods, such as vegetables, beans, and whole grains.
Watch blood pressure. Even in somewhat healthy older adults, high blood pressure can damage blood vessels in the brain and reduce the brain's oxygen supply. This damage may disrupt nerve cells that are thought to be important to decision-making, memory, and verbal skills.
- Diet strategy: Maintain a healthy weight, cut back on sodium, and eat plenty of fresh fruits, veggies, and whole grains. The DASH diet contains a lot of information about a heart-healthy diet.
Keep weight down. A healthy diet will help you get to and maintain a healthy weight. A healthy weight will help cut your risk of diabetes and high blood pressure. Also, it seems that excess weight can do harm to your brain even without these conditions. Fat cells may release hormones and cause inflammation that may be harmful to the brain. Those who carry weight in their middle (waists) seem to be most at risk.
No, there's no proof yet that following this advice will help to prevent mental decline. But studies have confirmed that a healthy diet can lower your risk of many other conditions, from diabetes to cancer. If you need one more reason to exercise and eat well, this may be it.
Created on 09/17/2008
Updated on 06/20/2011
- National Institute on Aging. Can Alzheimer's disease be prevented?
- Morris MC, Evans DA, Tangney CC, Bienias JL, Wilson RS. Fish consumption and cognitive decline with age in a large community study. Archives of Neurology. 2005;62(12):1849-1853.
- Fisher Center for Alzheimer's Research Foundation. Non-genetic risk factors.