Imagine being 90 (or 100) and having the sharp memory and cognitive skills of your younger self. This may be possible with a few lifestyle tweaks, some of which involve your taste buds. Yes, you can eat your way to a healthy brain.
Genes and lifestyle
Certain genes can increase the risk of cognitive decline and memory loss, but lifestyle-related risks seem to affect the brain more.
“When we consume unhealthy foods, our brain and body are out of balance, so restoring [balance] means we must eat as many whole foods as possible,” says Orsha Magyar, MSc, RHN. Magyar is the founder of NeuroTrition, a company that combines neuroscience and nutrition to create brain-friendly menus.
“I believe that overall brain function can improve if we switch to a healthy diet, and we can age our brains more gracefully,” advises Magyar.
A healthy diet, sleep, exercise, and challenging our brains by learning new things are all essential for optimal brain health. So are socializing and managing stress (high levels of the stress-induced hormone cortisol can increase dementia risk).
The elephant in the room: Alzheimer’s disease
Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is the most common type of progressive dementia. It involves loss of memory and cognitive function, which affects language and orientation skills, and it is incurable.
The two markers of AD, amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles, can be the result of brain inflammation caused by aging … but can also be a product of an unhealthy diet.
Your brain is … what you eat?
A diet rich in antioxidant vitamins like A, E, and C from vegetables and fruits, polyphenols (think naturally colorful foods!), unsaturated fats, and plenty of fiber (which your gut bacteria love) can lower levels of body and brain inflammation and reduce oxidative stress.
Saturated and trans fats, present in foods like dairy and meat, can have a negative impact on cognition and memory.
Magyar points out that animal products are high in omega-6 fatty acids—and consuming too many omega-6 fatty acids and too few omega-3 fatty acids has been linked to inflammation. In her opinion, a healthy, anti-inflammatory diet is mostly plant based. It does not have to be exclusively vegan, but it should consist of unprocessed, unrefined whole foods.
Mind the microbiome
Age-related changes in our gut microbiome, along with an unhealthy diet, can increase brain inflammation and promote degeneration.
You can boost the number of good bacteria that secrete short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs, which are anti-inflammatory) by making prebiotics, probiotics, and fiber part of your daily meals.
Eat fiber-rich meals that include beans or lentils and colorful salads with leafy greens and other fresh veggies. Add brain-protective spices and herbs for flavor.
Choose a brain-protective diet
High in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes, olive oil, and fish, paired with the occasional glass of red wine, the Mediterranean diet is possibly the healthiest, says Magyar, and has long been associated with a decreased risk of dementia and other chronic diseases.
A 2020 study found that a variation of the Mediterranean diet that’s high in fish and vegetables and low in alcohol provided the best protection against cognitive impairment, even in people at risk genetically.
Not a fish eater? The MIND diet is mostly plant based, encourages high consumption of berries and leafy greens with barely any fish, and has been found highly effective in AD prevention.
Whichever variation you choose, observe the 80/20 rule, says Magyar, unless you have an inflammatory condition. Stick to healthy whole foods for 80 percent of your diet and indulge occasionally (the remaining 20 percent).
Supplement when needed
Aging affects our ability to absorb nutrients, as do certain diets and health conditions. For example, a healthy brain requires appropriate levels of vitamin B12, vitamin D, and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid found mainly in fish), so if absorption is affected, supplements can help. But, says Magyar, “the focus should be on whole foods, since supplements are meant to add to a diet rather than replace it.”