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Food and Brain Health: What’s the Connection?

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Our brains work around-the-clock to keep our bodies functioning properly. From regulating our breathing and heartbeat to processing sensory information, brains need fuel to power all of the systems that keep us alive and healthy each day. When it comes to long-term brain health, does the type of food we consume impact the way our brains work?

The answer is actually, yes – the types of foods we eat do impact the way our brains work. Omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins and antioxidants have all been shown to support a healthy brain. These nutrients can be found in everything from fatty fish, berries, walnuts, and leafy green vegetables. Certain diets, like the Mediterranean diet, have also been connected with a lower risk of dementia. 

While making large-scale changes to the way we eat can be difficult and intimidating, it’s critical to understand the role that our diets play in more areas than just how much we weigh. Below, we’re breaking down the current brain health research as it relates to food groups, food supplements and diet types.

Food groups and brain health

Dark, leafy greens such as spinach, kale, and swiss chard are well known as great sources of nutrition. Studies suggest that dark, leafy greens may have a protective effect on cognitive decline and that one serving per day of green leafy vegetables may help slow cognitive decline with aging. In general, a higher intake of vegetables may even contribute to larger brain volume.

Berries are another 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.

Supplements and brain health

Fish oil and omega 3 supplements are often touted for their brain-health benefits. Research has suggested that consuming fish high in omega-3 may reduce the risk of dementia. High levels of omega-3 fatty acids are also found in a wide variety of other foods, including nuts/seeds and eggs.

While fish oil supplements are a generally well-tolerated and readily available alternative to consuming fish, do they offer a similar benefit to brain health? Unfortunately, fish oil supplements do not seem to have a large effect on the prevention of dementia or cognitive improvement in those with dementia. There is a belief that eating fish offers a different nutritional or vitamin profile than can be mimicked in a supplement. With that said, there may be other benefits to fish oil supplements beyond brain health.

Long known as a strong anti-inflammatory, there is a newfound interest in turmeric as a potential preventative measure for dementia and 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 than previously reported, but still slightly lower than Western countries including the United States.

Another study showed a benefit in some cognitive areas for those taking a pill form of curcumin, which is an important compound in turmeric. However, with only about 20 people in each study group, the findings are limited. Furthermore, it is difficult to know the amount of turmeric that would be helpful, as there are questions regarding its absorption/availability in our bodies. As a result, we should be cautious about overstating the benefits of turmeric and/or curcumin on cognition at the present time. It is also 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.

Diets and brain health

The Mediterranean diet, DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet, and MIND diet (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) have all been linked to lower rates of dementia and better cognitive performance. The Mediterranean diet focuses on fruits, vegetables, legumes, olive oil, and fish. The DASH diet was created to lower blood pressure., and the MIND diet was developed as a hybrid of the two, specifically aimed at lowering the risk of dementia. A recent study found that adherence to any of the 3 diets may reduce the risk of dementia. Furthermore, individuals may even see benefits from moderate adherence to the MIND diet.

Brain health and diet takeaways

Changing dietary habits is challenging but will likely provide more substantial 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 to overall health and brain health. In the end, if it’s good for the heart, it’s probably good for your brain!

How can I check 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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