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Food and Brain Health: What’s the Connection?

Food and Brain Health: What’s the Connection?

Making large scales changes to your diet can be difficult and intimidating. As a result, we’re often searching for that one perfect supplement, pill, or food to give us a desired outcome, whether that means weight loss, increasing energy, or reducing pain/inflammation. Does that one missing vitamin or “superfood” exist when it comes to long-term brain health? Let’s look at the recent brain health research on supplements, food groups, and diets. 

Supplements

Fish Oil/Omega 3 Supplements: High levels of Omega-3 fatty acids are found in a wide variety of foods, including certain types of fish, nuts/seeds, and eggs. Research has suggested that consuming fish oils high in Omega-3 may reduce risk for dementia. Fish oil supplements are a generally well-tolerated and readily available alternative to consuming fish.

Do fish oil supplements offer a similar benefit to brain health?

Unfortunately, fish oil supplements do not seem to have a large effect on prevention of dementia or cognitive improvement in those with dementia. There is a belief that eating fish offers a different nutritional/vitamin profile than can be mimicked in a supplement. With that said, there may be other benefits to fish oil supplements beyond brain health.

Questions? 

If you have questions about your brain health, contact our Brain Health and Cognitive Disorders Program at 504-842-7436.

Turmeric: Long known as a strong anti-inflammatory, there is new found interest in turmeric as a potential preventative measure for dementia/cognitive decline. Part of this interest stems from a 1998 study demonstrating a lower incidence of Alzheimer’s disease in India, where turmeric is a staple of their diet. A more recent study showed a higher incidence of dementia that previously reported, but still slightly lower than Western countries (including the United States).

Another recent study showed a benefit in some cognitive areas for those taking a pill form of cucurmin, which is an important compound in turmeric. However, with only about 20 people in each study group, the study is fairly limited. This may lead to larger scale studies, but there should be caution in overstating the benefits of turmeric and/or curcurmin on cognition at the present time. Furthermore, it is important to note that while India does have a high rate of turmeric consumption, a large percentage of their population is vegetarian, which has also been linked with reduced risk of dementia.

With limited data on specific supplements/spices, let’s look at how different food groups may impact brain health.

Food Groups

Dark, Leafy Greens: Greens such as spinach, kale, and swiss chard are well known great sources of nutrition. Past studies have also suggested that dark, leafy greens may have a protective effect on cognitive decline. A more recent study also found that one serving per day of green leafy vegetables may help slow cognitive decline with aging. High intake of vegetables may even contribute to larger brain volume

Berries: Berries are a great source of antioxidants and may also have benefits for brain health. A mixture of berries may be helpful for cognitive functioning as well as overall brain volume.  

If we can see benefits from different individual food categories, how might be benefit from certain dietary habits?

Diets

Mediterranean, DASH and MIND Diet: The Mediterranean diet focuses on fruits, vegetables, legumes, olive oil, fish, etc. The DASH diet was created to lower blood pressure. The MIND diet was developed as a hybrid of the two, specifically aimed at lowering risk of dementia. A recent study found that adherence to any of the 3 diets may reduce risk for dementia. Furthermore, individuals may even see benefits from moderate adherence to the MIND diet.

The Takeaway

Changing dietary habits is challenging but will likely provide larger brain health benefits than adding a supplement or spice into your diet. While the above diet plans may feel restrictive, we saw how incorporating different food groups, such as berries and greens, can also have a positive effect on brain health. It’s also important to remember that it’s not just what you eat, but also what you don’t eat. For example, consuming sugary beverages may be especially harmful for overall health and brain health. In the end, if it’s good for heart, it’s probably good for you brain!

How Can I Check on my Brain Health?

A neuropsychological evaluation provides detailed information about your current cognitive abilities in the context of your own history and reported symptoms as compared to others with a similar background.  Neuropsychologists are uniquely trained to assess cognitive and behavioral functioning and can help you and your loved ones understand the impact your symptoms may be having on your lives.

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