For National Senior Health and Fitness Day this year, my nutrition talk focused on brain health and what you can do to feed your brain. My interest in the topic was piqued when I heard neurosurgeon Dr. Sanjay Gupta discussing his new book on a podcast, so I bought and read it. It motivated me to share the information with you, because contrary to popular belief, there is opportunity for each of us to keep our brains sharp as we age and make our brains resilient to disease.
Our brains remain plastic throughout life and can rewire themselves in response to your experience; it can form and reorganize its connections. In a nutshell, you can change your brain for the better, and the worse. Without going into too much detail, here are the highlights.
Some of the risk factors for brain disease include the following: age, physical inactivity, unhealthy diet, smoking, social isolation, poor sleep, lack of mentally stimulating activities and misuse of alcohol. Additionally, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes and high cholesterol all increase a person's chances of developing dementia later in life. Fortunately, lifestyle interventions can delay the progression of cognitive decline.
In regards to food, there is no single food that is key to good brain health, but rather a combination of healthy foods is likely to protect the brain. It is often said that a heart healthy diet is a brain healthy diet. Conversely, our typical Western diet - high in salt, sugar, saturated fat and excess calories, is not brain friendly.
The MIND Diet (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) was shown in studies by Dr. Martha Morris of Rush Institute on Healthy Aging to measurably prevent cognitive decline and reduce risk of Alzheimer's Disease. According to the MIND Diet, which is based on some recommendations from the Mediterranean and DASH Diets, recommendations are as follows:
Green leafy veggies (everyday)
Other veggies (at least once per day)
Berries (at least twice per week)
Beans (every other day)
Whole Grains (three times per day)
Fish (at least once per week)
Poultry (at least twice per week)
Wine (one glass per day)
Butter and stick margarine (less than 1 Tbsp per day)
Cheese (less than one serving per week)
Pastries and sweets (limit)
Fried or fast food (less than one serving per week)
The Global Council on Brain Health Report (linked below) provides similar recommendations. The GCBH also recommends staying hydrated, including omega-3's from fatty fish and plant sources, limiting sodium to 2300mg per day, including fiber in the diet, reducing added sugars, and limiting your portions.
Isn't it interesting that most of the recommendations above are the SAME as for blood sugar control, heart health, weight loss, cancer prevention and more?! Basically, if you eat to care for your brain, you are also caring for the rest of your body. But, also like other diseases, food is only one modifiable lifestyle factor at play when it comes to brain health. Other critical factors are:
Exercise - keep moving! Fitness may be the MOST important thing you can do to enhance your brain's function and resiliency to disease. At minimum, exercise 30 minutes per day, five times per week. More is better.
Sleep - it is critical phase for the body, including the brain, to replenish. A well-rested brain is much more likely to be a healthy brain. Aim for 7-8 hours of sleep per night.
Learn & Discover - build and sustain your cognitive reserve by learning new things and challenging its thinking and calculating abilities.
Connect - maintain social connections to thrive. Loneliness can accelerate cognitive decline in older adults.
Enjoy the health-promoting recipes below, and find further resources for more information on keeping your mind sharp!
Some other references:
Sanjay Gupta, M.D. Keep Sharp. New York, Simon & Schuster, 2021.
AlzU.org - Alzheimer's Universe, provides access to free information/education related to Alzheimer's Disease prevention, treatment and caregiving. Created by the Department of Neurology at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York Presbyterian Hospital, and colleagues.