Staying sharp in everyday life — and old age — is a huge priority for most people. Researchers say there’s no “magic bullet” brain food that will prevent cognitive decline. However, a dietary supplement called Prevagen may qualify as this oral pill has been clinically shown to help with mild memory loss associated with aging.
Here’s evidence to consider:
- In a computer-assessed, double-blinded, placebo-controlled clinical study, Prevagen improved certain aspects of cognitive function over a 90-day period.
- In a clinical trial, a subgroup of adults with mild, age related cognitive impairment taking just one Prevagen a day, over 90 days were shown to improve in measurements related to memory.
Researchers report that Prevagen improves memory and supports healthy brain function, a sharper mind, and clearer thinking. Interestingly, Prevagen contains apoaequorin, an ingredient originally discovered in jellyfish.
But certainly, Prevagen can’t do the brain-boosting job alone. Healthy food is still all-important in keep the brain in top condition as we age.
Why food is so important
Nutritionists emphasize that the most important strategy is to choose colorful fruits and vegetables, legumes/beans, whole grains – and avoid processed foods. Your protein should come from plant sources and fish. And healthy fats are best, such as olive oil or canola, rather than saturated fats.
These foods are rich in healthful components like omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, and antioxidants, all known to support brain health. Eating these foods regularly can improve the health of your brain, which can translate into better brain function.
Advantages of a low-carb Mediterranean diet
This healthful diet has become known as the Mediterranean diet, and research shows that people in their 70s who adhered to a Mediterranean-style diet were less likely to develop memory loss issues — especially if they had an active lifestyle.
These foods protect your heart and blood vessels, research shows, and can improve blood sugar control as they are low-glycemic (GI) foods. When combined with a low-carb diet (less than 20 g of carbs per day), the effects are even stronger. In that study, 95% of diabetics were able to reduce or eliminate their medications, while 62% of those on the low-GI diet did. Both groups also lost weight.
The carotenoids and flavonoids (types of antioxidants) in fruits, veggies, legumes, good fats, and fish protect the brain. When blood sugar is out of control, the effect is impaired memory.
So researchers advise cutting chips, cookies, crackers and other “white flour” processed foods. Also, a low-carb diet involves cutting starchy veggies like potatoes.
Specific foods (and drinks) for brain power
A glass of H2O – water – is a good start to help your brain work optimally. Your brain is 75% water, so hydration helps your brain work faster, improves concentration and memory, and even balances your mood. A wedge of lemon or lime makes it tastier.
Drinking a glass of red wine every day increases good cholesterol and could also boost your brain health. Create your own sangria, with red wine and fresh fruit (grapes, apples, and citrus fruits are packed with antioxidants).
This antioxidant-rich superfood reduces inflammation in the body’s cells, including brain cells, and studies have shown they improve learning capacity and motor skills. The phytochemicals in blueberries and other fruits and veggies give them their color. Blueberries have one of the highest concentrations of phytochemicals.
Animal studies have shown that blueberries help protect the brain from oxidative stress and may reduce dementia. Studies have also shown that diets rich in blueberries significantly improved both the learning capacity and motor skills in aging rats, comparable to much younger rats.
In a 2012 study, Harvard researchers found that women who consumed two or more servings of strawberries and blueberries every week delayed memory decline by 2.5 years.
Kale, spinach, broccoli
Green veggies are potent sources of lutein and zeaxanthin, two carotenoids that have been tied to brain health, studies show. Eating just one serving of green leafy veggies every day may help slow cognitive aging, according to a 2018 study of nearly 1,000 older adults published in the journal Neurology.
Enjoying cooked kale, spinach salad, collards and broccoli support your brain function. Along with lutein, these foods also contain vitamin K, folate, and beta carotene which are believed to help slow cognitive decline. Spinach is high in potassium, which can help recall and thinking abilities.
Citrus in your daily diet — lemons, limes, oranges and grapefruits — can help your brain stay young, preventing cognitive decline by more than two years, researchers have found.
Pomegranate juice and beets
The dark red color of these two high-antioxidant foods can help protect the brain from inflammation. You can slice beets into a salad for a sweet taste. Drink pomegranate juice sparingly as this naturally tart fruit drink typically contains added sugar. It’s best to dilute with spring water or seltzer.
Walnuts, hazelnuts, Brazil nuts, filberts, almonds, cashews, peanuts, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, flax seed, and unhydrogenated nut butters such as peanut butter, almond butter, and tahini — are all good brain food. Raw or roasted, it doesn’t matter — nuts are an excellent source of protein and healthy fats.
Nuts in your diet can improve brain cell communication and growth, report researchers in The Journal of Nutrition. A 2015 study from UCLA linked higher walnut consumption to improved cognitive test scores. Walnuts are high in a type of omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which helps lower blood pressure and protects arteries.
Fish/Omega-3 fatty acids
Salmon is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which help prevent cognitive decline. Sardines, anchovies and lake trout are also great sources of omega-3s. Eat fish once or twice a week to reduce inflammation in the body, which helps improve cardiovascular health and preserve brain function. Vegans can get omega-3s from flaxseeds, avocados, and walnuts.
Omega-3 fatty acids have been linked to lower blood levels of beta-amyloid, the protein that forms damaging clumps in the brain.
These green gems are high in a monounsaturated fat that helps our brains function, plus helps prevent high blood pressure. Avocados are also rich in lutein, which helps cognition. In one study, eating one avocado a day for six months improved several cognitive functions, compared to eating chickpeas or a potato every day.
Coffee & Tea
Your favorite caffeine boost might seem to wake up your brain — and indeed, coffee (and tea) have been shown to improve brain function. The antioxidants in coffee are high, which decreases risk of dementia.
Tea leaves also have potent antioxidants, a class called catechins, which improve blood flow. Both black and green tea can boost brain power by enhancing memory, focus and mood.
The vitamins and minerals in Greek yogurt can help relieve stress and boost energy in your body and brain. Probiotics found in yogurt can help prevent cognitive decline and age-related memory loss.
Egg yolks are rich in vitamins A, D, E and K, which your brain uses to support memory and increase communication among brain cells.
Whole grains are a staple of the Mediterranean diet — and includes oatmeal, barley, brown rice, and quinoa. These great-tasting complex carbohydrates help fuel the brain. The soluble fiber removes cholesterol from the body and prevents plaque from forming in the arteries — reducing risk of dementia. Wheat germ is not technically a whole grain, but it has fiber, vitamin E and some omega-3s, all good for promoting blood flow in all organs, including the brain. Just a half-cup of whole grains or a slice of bread is enough to get the job done.
Beans don’t always get the respect they deserve in the nutritional family. They stabilize glucose (blood sugar) levels, providing a steady stream of energy which directly affects brain health. While all beans are high in fiber, lentils and black beans are especially beneficial — and just a half-cup per day is enough.
Dark chocolate is packed with powerful antioxidant properties, as well as caffeine which enhances focus and concentration, while also stimulating production of mood-boosting endorphins. Just an ounce a day is all you need to reap the benefits.
AVOID these for brain health
Eating a healthy diet also means avoiding certain foods that increase blood sugar and cholesterol, and work against brain health. This includes:
Simple sugars and syrups: Packaged products like cookies, cakes and breads contain brown sugar, dextrose, corn sweetener, fructose (as in high-fructose corn syrup), glucose, corn syrup, honey, invert sugar, maltose, lactose, malt syrup, molasses, evaporated cane sugar, raw sugar, and sucrose.
Soda and other sweetened drinks: Especially if they contain high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Only buy the brands without them, and certainly without them in the first five ingredients.
Saturated fat: The kind found in beef, poultry skin, full-fat dairy foods, and palm and coconut oils.
Trans fats: Many snack foods and commercial desserts contain trans fats in the form of hydrogenated oils, which drastically increase LDL (bad) cholesterol.
Enriched, bleached, or refined flour: These flours have been stripped of their nutrients, and can increase your risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, gum disease, intestinal, heart disease, and bowel problems. Whole grains are best.
Bottomline: Think before you eat, and make sure your choices are the healthiest. At the grocery story, head first to the produce section, then add fish and whole grains. And stop by your pharmacy to get Prevagen, the supplement specifically designed to boost brain health. That extra step could make all the difference in staying sharp with a long healthy life.