Are you wondering about what you can do to help protect your brain from future cognitive decline? A fear for many people as they get older is that they are going to be sound of body but their mind may not be. Our mental health has an enormous impact on our day-to-day lives and maybe we should be spending as much time giving our brains a workout as we do looking after our bodies. If you send your car in for regular servicing, check the oil and the tire pressure, your car will probably run smoother for longer. Attending to your own brain maintenance,using evidence-based nutritional and lifestyle strategies will likely help provide the same benefit.
By the time you get to your 40s, chances are you’re already walking into rooms with absolutely no idea what you came there for. Of course, what’s going on is multilayered – forgetfulness and brain fog can be caused by so many different things (many of which can be helped by simple nutritional and lifestyle modifications) – but there are some foods and lifestyle strategies that scientists know are excellent for keeping the brain healthy and preventing the downhill slide.
At this point, you probably know that carrying excess weight on your body—particularly extra body fat around your middle—can increase the risk for diabetes, heart disease, stroke, cancer, and dementia. And now, recent research in 2019 suggests that there is an association between having a bigger waistline and a high body mass index (BMI) in your 60s, and accelerated brain ageing, by at least a decade. This is due to the cortex thinning. Before you freak out, what this really means is, that by losing weight (ideally, well in advance of your 60s), people may be able to stave off brain ageing and potentially the memory and thinking problems that can come along with it.
Good Quality Sleep
We already know that sleep is essential for good cognitive health. Researchers in 2019 followed 119 participants over the age of 60 for six nights of sleep, and found that participants with less deep sleep, as characterized by their brain waves, produced higher levels of a certain brain protein called tau. Elevated levels of tau in the central nervous system have been linked with brain damage. When looking at the brain of someone who is sleep-deprived, scientists have also found reduced metabolism and blood flow in multiple brain regions.
As you sleep, memories are reactivated, connections between brain cells are strengthened, and information is transferred from short to long-term. Without enough quality sleep, we can become more forgetful. I talk a lot to my clients about techniques to optimise sleep. It’s a big topic but good places to start are to stay away from gadgets 1 hour before sleep and to avoid exercising at least 2.5 hours before sleep.
A 2017 study showed that daily consumption of tea can reduce the risk of cognitive decline in older persons by 50%. A 2019 study by the same authors showed that drinking oolong, black, or green tea at least 4 times a week for 25 years had a protective effect on age-related decline in brain organisation. So what does a well-organised brain actually mean? When the connections between brain regions are more structured, information processing can be performed more efficiently. As you might expect, organised brain regions are associated with healthy cognitive function.
Research in 2019 has found that seniors over the age of 60 who consume more than two standard portions (1 portion = 150g; 2 portions= half a plate) of mushrooms weekly may have 50% reduced odds of having mild cognitive impairment (MCI). A compound called ergothioneine (ET) is a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory found in a variety of mushrooms that researchers suspect is the root of these benefits.
Berries aren’t only delicious, they also work wonders for cognitive function thanks to the high levels of powerful antioxidants they contain, specifically anthocyanidin. Anthocyanidin has been shown to boost memory, neural function, and coordination. It does this by improving communication between brain cells, increasing plasticity – the creation and strengthening of neural pathways -, and helps with memory and learning, and reducing cognitive decline. As a rule of thumb, the darker the berry, the higher its antioxidant content, with blueberries and blackberries the winners.
For similar reasons, the same is true of dark chocolate. The brain is very susceptible to oxidative stress, which contributes to age-related cognitive decline, and foods with high levels of antioxidants fight the free radicals that cause this damage. In studies, cacao flavonoids encourage neuron and blood vessel growth in the parts of the brain related to memory and learning. A study in 2018 looked at what happened when people ate dark chocolate (over 70% cacao) and concluded that it helped brain plasticity, which helps memory and learning.
Nuts and Seeds
If you’re looking to justify your nut butter obsession a 2018 study found that eating more than 10 grams of nuts a day was positively associated with better mental functioning, including improved thinking, reasoning and memory in Chinese patients ages 55 and up. Instead of reaching for the sugary snacks when the slump strikes, give nuts a try. A scientific review in 2014 found vitamin E might help prevent Alzheimer’s disease. The nuts and seeds containing the highest levels of vitamin E are sunflower seeds, hazelnuts, and almonds.
The same could be said for oily fish. The omega-3 fats it contains help build membranes around every cell in the body, including brain cells, where they improve the structure of brain cells called neurons. A few years ago, a study found that people with high levels of omega-3s had increased blood flow in the brain.
Green Leafy Vegetables
Green leafy vegetables like kale or spinach, are believed to protect the brain because they contain high levels of compounds that fight oxidative stress. Antioxidants found in dark leafy greens include lutein, zeaxanthin, phenols and flavonoids.
Soybean products like tofu are rich in a group of antioxidants called polyphenols, which are linked to a reduced risk of dementia and other age-related cognitive problems. The polyphenols they contain – isoflavones, including daidzein and genistein – are antioxidants, and you’ve already learned how good these are for brain health. The best kind of soya to eat is fermented forms like miso, natto and fermented tofu.
They are chock-full of nutrient-dense monounsaturated fats, which support blood flow to the brain. They’re also helpful in reducing blood pressure, which is linked to cognitive decline.
The ingredient in cucumbers we’re most interested in is the antioxidant fisetin, and science has previously found that it can improve memory. Now a study (admittedly on mice) found that a daily dose of fisetin can improve the symptoms of Alzheimer’s. You’ll also find fisetin in strawberries.
Legumes like chickpeas, beans, lentils, and split peas are a good source of folic acid, which can improve verbal and memory performance, and may delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. It makes sense, after all getting enough folic acid during pregnancy is vital for foetal brain development and preventing neural tube defects.
Thanks to its caffeine content, people often use coffee to keep them alert when they’re flagging. Some research last year suggested that there’s another reason it might be helpful… Coffee may increase your brain’s capacity for processing information. Proper good quality coffee is also a source of antioxidants and has been linked to the prevention of cognitive decline and brain conditions like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Eggs are a super-duper brain food as they are packed with the B vitamins B6, B12, and folic acid, and research shows these vitamins can prevent your brain from shrinking. They also contain choline, a nutrient that may prevent brain shrinkage and delay cognitive decline.
I am a big fan of this cruciferous vegetable because it has so many health-bringing qualities. The most interesting nutrients that broccoli contains for brain health are glucosinolates, which break down in the body to produce isothiocyanates. These isothiocyanates (and you can also find them in Brussels sprouts, bok choy, cabbage, and kale) may reduce oxidative stress and lower the risk of degenerative brain conditions.
Cinnamon may keep your brain healthy and your memory sharp. Studies have shown that the compounds in cinnamon may be beneficial for Alzheimer’s prevention. In Alzheimer’s, “plaques” and “tangles” damage brain cells, and cinnamon may prevent the formation of both the plaques and the tangles.
Curcumin, the compound found in this golden spice, is popular for many in the fight against getting older, specifically for its anti-inflammatory properties. You may already be taking it if you have arthritis or other aches and pains. It also protects long-term cognitive function, memory, and mood, as well as combating degenerative processes in the brain. After all, all ageing is in some way linked to inflammation.