Wdowik column: Food choices you make now can protect your brain later
Dementia runs in my family, and many of us have seen dementia affect both friends and celebrities.
According to the National Institutes of Health, the term dementia describes a collection of symptoms that can be caused by various disorders affecting the brain. Symptoms may include impairment of memory, language, thinking, judgment and behavior. Alzheimer’s disease, stroke and metabolic disorders are among several types of diseases that cause dementia.
I don’t know about you, but I do not just want a long life, I want a high-quality long life, so I am always watchful for research on nutrition to keep my brain healthy and alert. Fortunately, scientists have uncovered dietary patterns that are associated with lowered risk of age-related dementia. Add these brain-healthy food groups if they are not already part of your regular diet.
The brain foods
Green leafy vegetables include spinach, kale, collards, lettuce and other greens such as beet tops. Aim for a serving almost every day — not that difficult if you make a simple salad or green smoothie daily.
Other vegetables, such as peppers, squash, carrots, tomatoes, beets and broccoli, just to name a few, are high in antioxidants that protect against deterioration and damage to cells. It is very likely that the combination of antioxidants and other factors found in the vegetables contribute to their health benefits, so opt for the real food rather than a supplement.
Nuts offer protein and fiber to stabilize blood sugar, important for avoiding the cognitive decline found in people with impaired glucose tolerance. Other beneficial nutrients include the selenium in Brazil nuts, the alpha linolenic acid and polyphenols in walnuts, and antioxidants in almonds. Snack on a different kind every day and you will increase your odds of getting the brain boost you need.
Berries are the fruit of choice for brain health. Healthy adults have shown improved scores on word recognition, spatial memory and accuracy with intake of blueberries and strawberries. Enjoy daily, and for the most benefit, mix it up with blackberries, raspberries and cranberries.
Legumes are high in both protein and fiber, but it is likely their phytochemicals and B vitamins that enhance your brain power, making them an all-around wonder food. Choose red, kidney, pinto, black and garbanzo beans, along with lentils and peas; eat one serving three times a week.
Fish are a rich source of omega 3 fatty acids, and eating just one serving per week has been found to significantly lower one’s risk of dementia. Enjoy fatty fish like wild Alaskan salmon, arctic char, Atlantic mackerel, sardines, black cod and anchovies.
Poultry, including turkey, chicken and eggs, are high in choline, a neurotransmitter important for brain communication.
Olive oil, especially extra virgin, is high in monounsaturated fat and antioxidants, both protective of the brain. In a classic study of adults in Spain, those who ate olive oil daily had less cognitive impairment (and even some improvement) compared to those on a low-fat diet.
While important, diet is not the only influence on the brain. Having a greater purpose in life, maintaining a social network, and being physically active are all critical components of a healthy lifestyle that means better quality, not just quantity, of the years ahead.
Melissa Wdowik, PhD, RDN, FAND, is an assistant professor at Colorado State University in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, and director of the Kendall Reagan Nutrition Center.