Food for thought – how to protect your aging brain
Updated: Oct 2
When it comes to aging, we have no choice but to succumb to the march of time on our bodies. However, though we can’t choose whether to age or not, we can choose whether to do it quickly or slowly. Through intelligent dietary and lifestyle choices we can slow down the ravages of time or even reverse some of them. One of the biggest fears people have as they age is the development of dementia and the loss of their mental faculties....
944,000 people in the UK currently have dementia and it is predicted that 1 in 3 people born today will develop the disease in later life (1).
Some people will be more susceptible to developing dementia due to family history and genetics but by far the greatest risk factors are ones that can be modified, i.e., they are something you can do something about. By taking these steps you can reduce both oxidative stress and inflammation and thus protect your brain from these age-related pathologies.
These ‘modifiable risk factors’ are to do with your diet and lifestyle choices, and by making some changes, you can drastically reduce your risk of developing dementia, slow down its progression or sometimes even reverse some of the symptoms such as memory loss.
So, what can you do?
Dietary interventions to improve brain health:
1. Normalise your weight. If you are overweight then your number one priority should be to lose weight, particularly from around your waistline. Fat accumulated around the middle, especially if it feels quite solid, is called visceral fat and is very inflammatory (4). This kind of fat is associated with type 2 diabetes and heart disease, both of which are strong risk factors for dementia. Low-carbohydrate diets are more successful at helping people to reduce visceral fat than low-fat diets (5) so start cutting out those sugars and refined carbohydrates like rice, pasta, bread and sugary drinks.
2. Eat foods that contain high levels of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory nutrients to reduce levels of oxidative stress and inflammation. For example, blueberries have been shown to improve memory and slow cognitive decline in both healthy and cognitively impaired older adults (6). Vegetables of all colours also contain a broad range of polyphenols and vitamins that are associated with improved cognition or protection from cognitive decline (7).
So, make sure your diet contains lots of leafy green vegetables, different coloured peppers, aubergines, courgettes, and other coloured vegetables as well as plenty of berries, particularly blueberries – we call this ‘eating a rainbow’ and it ensures you get a broad range of the nutrients and polyphenols you need to reduce inflammation and oxidative stress in your body.
3. Eat plenty of omega-3 and some omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids have been studied widely in relation to brain health and may play an important role in both preventing cognitive decline in older adults and improving memory in people with dementia (8). These fats are needed to keep cell membranes flexible and fluid, to insulate nerve cells and to enable proper signalling between nerve cells in the brain.
Omega-3 fatty acids are found in abundance in oily fish such as salmon, trout, tuna, sardines and mackerel. Grass-fed beef is also a good source of omega-3. Plant-based sources include walnuts, chia and flax seeds, but be aware that plant-based sources of omega-3 (ALA and SDA) must be converted to the active form in humans (DHA and EPA) and this conversion is very limited (9). People following a vegetarian or vegan diet should supplement their omega-3 intake using a microalgae supplement which are rich in DHA and EPA (10). Omega-6 is found in abundance in nuts and seeds and eggs.
4. Add turmeric to your diet. This is the bright yellow spice from the root (rhizomes) of the herbaceous plant ‘curcuma longa’. It is related to the ginger plant and indeed fresh turmeric and fresh root ginger look surprisingly similar until you cut into the turmeric and discover the bright yellow flesh beneath the beige-brown skin.
Turmeric has both culinary and medicinal qualities and has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years. It is a very well researched spice and its active ingredient, curcumin, has been found to have both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties in the aging brain (11)
Turmeric has culinary versatility; it can be eaten both raw and cooked. Not only is it a common ingredient in curries, but it can also be added to soups (it is particularly good in carrot or sweet potato-based soups) or used to add colour and flavour to coconut-based sauces. It can also be added to rice and other grains, such as quinoa or bulgur wheat, to make them yellow, and it makes a great marinade for white fish or tofu, just rub it into the surface of fish with your fingers. Another use of turmeric is to add it to omelettes, scrambled egg or even yoghurt!
An important tip when you are cooking with turmeric is to always add a bit of black pepper to the dish as well. The active ingredient in black pepper, piperine, helps to improve absorption of curcumin from the gut and can improve blood serum levels by 2000% (12) In fact, piperine helps with the absorption of many nutrients increasing their bioavailability so adding pepper to any meal will have great benefits for health.
5. Red meat versus tofu. Eating lean red meat has been shown to reduce dementia risk 4-fold in older people, and improve memory (13) This effect could be related to some beneficial components of lean red meat (iron, protein, healthy mono and polyunsaturated fats and Vitamin B12) and beneficial effects in increasing satiety and reducing weight gain (14).
On the other hand, tofu consumption has been extensively researched in relation to dementia and found to increase the risk of memory loss and dementia, possibly due to high levels of phytoestrogens, however tempeh (a fermented soybean product) was shown to be protective against dementia (15)
6. Eliminate ready meals and other ultra-processed foods (UPF) from your diet. UPFs are rich in unhealthy fats, sugars and additives that are inflammatory and bad for brain health. They also lack nutrients and thus are low in antioxidants. A study found that UPF is associated with increased risk of dementia and that reducing UPFs in the diet reduced the risk of dementia (16). So, consider whether it’s time to cut out those shop bought ready meals, take-aways and processed snacks, cereals and sauces and start cooking from scratch with raw ingredients – your brain will thank you!
Lifestyle choices to improve brain health
7. Be sociable and use your mind. Studies show that social connectivity i.e., meeting with friends or family, talking on the phone, joining groups; in fact anything that reduces feelings of loneliness and isolation is good for the brain (17, 18).
Though there is no hard evidence yet that brain training can reduce dementia risk, the Alzheimer’s Society recommend that you do activities that keep the brain active and learning new things (19). They recommend that you do things such as:
· any kind of adult education or learning
· arts and crafts (especially in groups)
· playing a musical instrument or singing
· doing ‘brainteasers’, such as puzzles, crosswords or quizzes
· playing card games, chess or board games
· reading books, or becoming a member of a book club
· creative writing or keeping a diary
· learning a new language.
8. Exercise more. There is a lot of scientific interest in the associations between exercise and dementia prevention and exercise and dementia improvement. According to the Alzheimer’s Society regular aerobic exercise in midlife can reduce dementia risk by between 30-45% compared to sedentary people (20).
It is thought that exercise improves brain health by improving blood flow to the brain, reducing neuro-inflammation, and increases the development of new nerve cells and connections between nerve cells (21).
In people with type 2 diabetes, regular physical exercise reinforces antioxidative capacity, reduces oxidative stress, and has anti-inflammatory effects (22).
The best kinds of exercise or activity include brisk walking, swimming, cycling, running, playing tennis or a team sport; and if you are not sporty then things like digging in the garden, housework or always using stairs in a building will help reduce your risk of dementia.
There are many modifiable risk factors related to diet and lifestyle choices that you can change to help prevent the onset of dementia as you get older. However, improving one in isolation will probably have very little impact on dementia risk. Tackling all of these factors together offers the best way of ensuring that your brain stays healthy as you age. So, make sure you eat a real-food diet, low in sugars and refined carbohydrates with lots of different coloured vegetables, some lean red meat, oily fish, nuts, seeds and spices, get active both physically and mentally and stay connected with friends and family. This way you can expect to live a long and healthy life.