We?ve all experienced it. That maddening ?memory moment? when you go into another room and then forget why you?re there. Such mental lapses can occur at any age, of course, but become more common as you older.
Faced with Baby Boomers who are rapidly graying yet physically healthier than previous generations, researchers are increasingly focused on finding ways we can all maintain our mental function. Experts insist that lifestyle changes are an important part of the mix.
Chances are you?re already doing something to help your mind stay sharp. Maybe you solve classic crossword puzzles or have tried tackling the new Soduko grids. Or perhaps you exercise or meditate to help ease stress. All those things help.
But what about diet? EN investigates the role of foods and supplements in preventing or delaying dementia and other milder forms of age-related memory loss. Here’s what you need to know to help keep your mind sharp.
Brain Health Tied to Heart Health. ?Good cardiovascular health goes hand-in-hand with good brain function,? says Irwin Rosenberg, M.D., director of the Nutrition and Neurocognition Laboratory at Tufts? Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging in Boston.
Indeed, a growing body of research links age-related memory impairment with well-known risk factors for cardiovascular disease, including elevated blood cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes and being overweight.
Following a heart-healthy diet can help combat all these conditions and improve brain health. Consider:
- Several studies suggest that too much saturated fat can have a negative effect on brain function.
- Older Italians eating a typical Mediterranean diet?high in unsaturated fats, omega-3 fats, whole grains, fish, fruits and vegetables, while low in red meat and saturated fats?were at reduced risk of suffering mental decline.
- French people who drank three to four glasses of red wine a day had less risk of dementia than teetotalers.
Longevity Strategies. Maintaining your weight and overall health as you age may also help protect the brain. A long-term study of 1,500 adults found that those who were obese at middle age were more likely to develop dementia later in life. And people with high blood pressure and high cholesterol had six times the risk.
Gary Small, M.D., director of the Memory and Aging Research Center at UCLA and author of The Longevity Bible: 8 Essential Strategies for Keeping Your Mind Sharp and Your Body Young (Hyperion, 2006), found in his research that simple lifestyle changes, including diet, can boost cognitive function.
Small conducted a 14-day clinical trial in which 17 middle-aged participants were divided into those who made healthy lifestyle changes and those who followed their usual routine. The lifestyle change group ate five mini-meals a day to help prevent a drop in blood glucose (the brain’s main energy source) and emphasized low-glycemic carbs like whole grains, plus fruits and vegetables for antioxidant power.
By study’s end, the lifestyle change group demonstrated better word fluency and brain scans showed 5% greater efficiency in the brain’s working memory.
?However, in addition to diet,? says Small, ?we incorporated other healthy habits into the participants? routines?mental exercises, daily walks and relaxation techniques’so it’s hard to say exactly how much of the benefit was due to what people ate. But I firmly believe that diet made a difference.?
Vitamin Power. Low intake of vitamins, especially B6, B12 and folate, can affect cognitive function and memory.
?The B vitamins are beneficial,? explains Rosenberg, ?because they work together to regulate homocysteine? (an artery-blocking protein that researchers have linked to Alzheimer’s disease). Vitamins B6 and B12 are linked to memory recall.
As the brain ages, it becomes less able to protect itself against damage from inflammation and oxidation. Communication between brain cells begins to lag. The potential for antioxidants like vitamins C and E to protect brain cells is promising?one clinical trial found that vitamin E delayed the progression of some aspects of Alzheimer’s by about seven months?but many large-scale studies have yielded mixed results.
Intriguing Animal Evidence. Animal studies suggest benefits from antioxidants. A study of older beagles, for instance, found the dogs performed better on cognitive tests and were more likely to learn new tasks when fed a diet abundant in fruits, vegetables and vitamins, along with getting regular exercise, interacting with other dogs and playing with stimulating toys.
In the study, the added fruits and vegetables were the human equivalent of increasing from three servings a day to five or six. Still to be seen, however, is whether you can teach a human new diet tricks.
The Bottom Line. Although more research is needed, it’s clear that an overall heart-healthy diet?one rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, unsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids, but low in saturated and trans fats?may not only help your ticker, but your noggin as well. Check out EN‘s list of foods, above, that provide the vitamins and phytonutrients that may benefit your memory.