The Importance of Nutrition in Keeping Your Brain Healthy
As part of the human body, your brain benefits from all you do to keep your body fit and healthy – exercise and eating well are both essential elements in maintaining a sharp mind.
A new study, recently published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, found that older adults who had diets similar to the Mediterranean diet (which includes the MIND diet) scored significantly better on cognitive tests that those who eat less healthfully. The Mediterranean and similar diets focus on eating lots of fruits and vegetables, relying on fish and poultry for your main protein sources, eating healthful fats and oils and limiting intake of red meat and sweets. The MIND diet is a little more specific in its do’s and don’ts, focusing on leafy green vegetables (like kale and spinach) as the main focus of food choices and putting greater restrictions on one’s intake of dairy products. One study showed that people who followed the MIND diet reduced their risk of Alzheimer’s by 53 percent.
By following the Mediterranean, MIND or similar diet, you’ll help ensure your brain is getting proper amounts of the essential nutrients it needs. But, just in case, here’s a list of specific nutrients you should make sure you’re getting plenty of.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
These essential fats have a wealth of benefits, including potentially reducing the risk for Alzheimer’s disease. According to a study published in Neurology, eating foods high in omega-3 fatty acids (such as wild salmon, anchovies, sardines, herring, walnuts, flaxseed oil and beans) is linked with lower levels of beta-amyloid protein, which is linked with Alzheimer’s disease. In an earlier study published in Neurology, low omega-3 levels were linked with smaller brain size and a poorer performance on memory tests. Omega-3s are also powerful anti-inflammatory agents that have been shown to ease joint pain and stiffness and depression, two ailments that affect seniors in disproportionately high numbers.
The “sunshine vitamin” is essential to maintaining a healthy brain, but nearly three in four Americans are deficient in this nutrient – and older adults may be even more at risk of getting too little Vitamin D. A study conducted at Rutgers University showed that older adults with low Vitamin D levels may lose their cognitive abilities faster than those with normal Vitamin D levels. In another study, an international research team conducted a study that observed over 1,600 seniors for six years. They found that those who were severely deficient in vitamin D were more than twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s and dementia than those who had adequate levels.
This important vitamin helps maintain healthy nerve function and seniors are at higher risk for not being able to absorb it from the food they eat. Additionally, a study conducted by researcher at Rush University Medical Center found that seniors with low levels of B12 had a greater risk of brain shrinkage and losing their cognitive skills. Food rich in Vitamin B12 (that are also on the Mediterranean-style diets) include shellfish (clams and crab are good sources), fish (mackerel, salmon, herring, sardines and tuna) and eggs.
We all know the importance of staying hydrated. But what effect does water have on the brain? Well, as with all organs, your brain is made up mostly of water, so it needs to be replenished continually to maintain optimum function. A study done at the University of Connecticut showed that even mild dehydration can alder a person’s mood, energy level and ability to think clearly. Another study showed that mild dehydration can affect memory skills.
What to Avoid
In addition to these essentials, we should all try to avoid eating highly processed foods, which can have hidden sugars, sodium and trans fats. And, of course, if you smoke, quit. Smoking robs the brain of oxygen.
This article is not intended to replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Speak to your doctor and/or a registered dietitian if you have questions about your nutritional needs.