What scares you most about aging? For me, it is the potential for loss of mental acuity, whether due to general dementia or Alzheimer's Disease. My primary motivator for maintaining positive lifestyle behaviors is keeping a healthy brain. With this article, I share my expertise in nutrition and its connection to preserving brain health.
Your dietary goal is to minimize chronic, systemic inflammation. The body heals cells by creating inflammation caused by oxygen molecules known as free radicals. These unstable molecules are produced during normal metabolic processes. They are increased by excess belly fat, sedentary lifestyle, stress, excess alcohol intake, large amounts of animal-derived protein, and ultra-processed foods. Plant foods are rich in powerful antioxidants, which help to neutralize free radicals and ward off inflammation.
Food patterns that are plant-leaning reduce inflammation while providing nutrients vital for brain health. A study in Italy among 1,902 adults 80 years or older found that those whose diet most closely following a Mediterranean meal pattern in the previous year were 34 percent less likely to have dementia than those who did not, even after adjusting for other risk factors.
Another diet pattern associated with keeping the brain healthy is the MIND diet. Researchers evaluated the frequency of intake of foods in ten nourishing food groups and lifestyle factors (physical activity, alcohol consumption, and cognitive activities). Two studies that followed over 2,500 older Americans for about six-years found that dementia risk was significantly reduced in people with high consumption of foods listed in the green zone of the adjacent illustration. The participants also consumed few if any of the items shown in yellow and orange.
Both the MIND and the Mediterranean Diet include a wide variety of foods. High diversity increases the range of vital nutrients. Variability is essential because vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytonutrients work in partnership. There are dozens of examples, and here are two.
- DHA and EPA – the active forms of omega-3 fatty acids, are most effective for people with adequate B vitamin intake. Salmon is an excellent source of EPA, DHA, and several B vitamins. Other sources of B vitamins include black beans and portabella mushrooms.
- For older people who have high magnesium to calcium ratios, increasing magnesium intake may improve cognition. So, pair your calcium-rich foods with ones high in magnesium. For example, you can enjoy canned salmon (calcium) with avocado (magnesium) on a salad.
Red, blue, and purple foods are rich in anthocyanin, an antioxidant associated with a decreased risk of Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia. In a study that followed over 2,500 people 50 years of age or older for 20 years, the risk of Alzheimer's and other dementias was reduced by 76 percent among those with higher intakes of anthocyanins. Eat purple carrots, purple potatoes, red cabbage, red onion, red bell peppers, red/blue/blackberries, and red grapes in place of less colorful cousins. However, the same study found that participants with higher intakes of antioxidants found in onions, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, apples, pears, and tea had a 76 percent reduced risk of diminished brain health than those with the lowest intakes. So, food variety is essential.
What about supplements? The FDA has warned that many supplements promoted to treat Alzheimer's disease and dementia are marketed with unproven calms and are "selling false hope." The FDA advised consumers that supplements such as Procera AVH and Alpha Brain can inhibit blood platelets from forming clots. These supplements can dangerously interact with blood-thinning supplements (e.g., garlic, high-dose vitamin E) and drugs such as aspirin and Coumadin.
Studies on curcumin supplements have shown short-term beneficial effects on thinking and memory; however, longer-term studies have provided mixed results. Curcumin is the active component of turmeric, so instead of spending money on supplements, you could buy a large quantity of real food and a jar of turmeric seasoning. The amount of turmeric that you need to receive health benefits is not a lot. Studies show that as little as 1/50th of a teaspoon of turmeric consumed for several months has health benefits.
Nancy Teeter, RDN, is a SaddleBrooke resident and is passionate about sharing her nutrition knowledge with others. This article should not replace advice from your medical provider.