Our brain is the engine that controls everything we do, think, say, feel, both consciously and unconsciously. Yet, it is still an organ in our body like any other. As powerful as the human brain is, it is also vulnerable, especially as we age. Often, what we consume – or refrain from consuming – determines how healthy our brains are into advancing age. Quite literally, we must “feed the brain.”
The Aging Brain
Even for those in the best of health, changes occur in the brain as a natural part of aging. The cerebral cortex thins, neurons shrink, spine density decreases, as does white matter connectivity and the production of neurotransmitters. A decline in brain volume in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus is largely responsible for the age-related memory impairment many seniors experience.
But there is good news: what we do or do not put in our mouths every day goes a long way toward staving off memory loss, Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, as well as heart conditions that lead to brain dysfunction.
A Meeting of the Diets
A hopeful study out of Rush University investigated the merits of combining two diets – the Mediterranean Diet and the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet – to create the MIND diet. The study examined the effects of the MIND diet on over 900 older adults over five years and found that it reduced their risk of developing memory loss or Alzheimer’s by as much as a whopping 53 percent.
What’s on the MIND Diet?
Here are some basics of the MIND diet, a flexible plan that’s easy to follow and tasty, too! The nutrients in these foods have been found to improve neurological function, slow cognitive decline, and decrease neuron loss in the brain, oxidative stress and inflammation.
- Green leafy vegetables like kale, spinach, chard, arugula, collards at least times a week or other veggies at least once per day
- Nuts at least five times a week
- Beans more than three times per week
- At least three servings of whole grains like barley, oatmeal, brown rice, whole grain breads per day
- Fish high in omega-3 fatty acids (trout, salmon, herring, mackerel) at least once a week
- Poultry at least twice a week
- Berries, particularly blueberries and strawberries, at least twice per week
- Olive oil instead of butter or margarine
- Dark chocolate with at least 85% cocoa
- Red wine limited to a glass a day (see “Alcohol and Dementia” below)
- Green tea
Other foods and beverages with noted brain health benefits are coffee, turmeric, broccoli (your mother was right!), pumpkin seeds, oranges, and eggs.
Brain Food That Inhibits Brain Health
Just as there are foods and beverages that can be incorporated into our daily diets for optimal brain health, there are those that should be avoided or consumed only in moderation because of their negative effects on memory and cognition.
Some of these are:
- Sugary drinks with high-fructose corn syrup (soda, energy drinks and fruit juices) can increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, which has been shown to increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease; high blood sugar levels can increase the risk of dementia, even in those who don’t have diabetes.
- Foods with refined carbohydrates such as white sugars, white flours and highly processed grains have a high glycemic index that can impair brain function.
- Industrially produced trans fats such as shortening, margarine, frosting, ready-made cakes, cookies and snack foods have been linked to the development of Alzheimer’s, reduced memory and brain volume and cognitive decline.
- Highly processed foods such as chips, instant noodles, microwave popcorn, ready-made meals and sauces increase fat around the organs, which is linked to brain tissue damage. Unfortunately, these are the kinds of foods that seniors who are less able to prepare healthy meals for themselves often turn to.
- Aspartame, the ingredient in diet sodas and other artificially sweetened products, contains an ingredient that can cross the blood-brain barrier and disrupt the production of neurotransmitters as well as increase the brain’s vulnerability to oxidative stress.
- Fish high in mercury (a heavy metal contaminant and neurological poison) include shark and swordfish. These should be avoided in favor of fish low in mercury and high in omega-3 fatty acids.
- Cheese should be limited to once per week as well as red meats and fried or fast foods.
- Alcohol in large quantities can have devastating effects on the brain (see below); as noted above, no more than one glass of wine (preferably red) per day for seniors is the recommended allowance.
Alcohol and Dementia
Countless studies have proven the damage to the brain caused by chronic alcohol use, particularly among seniors, including a reduction in brain volume, harmful metabolic changes, a disruption in neurotransmitters, and vitamin B1 deficiencies that can lead to Korsakoff’s syndrome, a form of dementia.
“Alcohol consumption has an added impact on the again brain, particularly in the regions essential to cognitive function,” warns neuroscientist Dr. Kristen Willeumier. According to her, even moderate drinking has been found to reduce hippocampal volume. This is the part of the brain responsible for learning and memory.
Furthermore, a June 2018 study found that alcohol use disorders were linked to a threefold increase in the risk of all types of dementia.
The Heart-Brain Connection
Brain health is closely related to heart health. The heart pumps blood to every part of the body, including the brain, and if the heart is ailing, so likely is the brain.
Consider that a stroke, sometimes called a “brain attack,” occurs when a clot or plaque blocks a blood vessel in the brain, or a vessel in the brain bursts. This causes brain tissue to die, damaging memory and cognitive ability. Vascular dementia is the result of impaired blood flow to the brain. It causes a series of “mini-strokes” that can cause memory loss, delayed thinking and changes in personality. Other heart-related conditions that affect the brain include heart disease, hypertension and atrial fibrillation, among others.
Taking care of your heart by eating a healthy, “mindful” diet, maintaining a healthy weight, refraining from smoking and excessive alcohol consumption, and regularly exercising will also greatly benefit your brain.
Senior Living and Healthy Brain Food
Among the many advantages of a quality senior living community is the assurance that healthy food choices for the brain, heart and all systems of the body are offered every day, planned and prepared by nutritionists and culinary experts with residents’ overall health and well-being top of mind.
Mindful dining is just one of the benefits of life at Barclay Friends
Schedule an appointment to visit us today!