As baby boomers get older, many will experience age-related problems with memory and other cognitive functions. But they can help maintain their cognitive function and protect it from decline and impairment by eating the right foods.
“For the good health of our minds, a healthy diet is very important,” says Joey Gee, DO, chair and director of neuromedicine and stroke services at Mission Hospital, Neuroscience and Spine Institute.
What’s the best food for your brain? Fish, fruits, vegetables, wine, walnuts, olive oil, as well as E and B vitamins top the list for healthy cognition, studies show.
Gee makes sure his patients know the importance of eating these foods. “We do recommend fish oil,” says Gee. Fish oil, specifically Omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil, have been shown to be critical for brain function. These fatty acids are found in salmon, flax seeds, flaxseed oil, walnuts and leafy vegetables. He also recommends green leafy vegetables, wine, and even caffeine—in moderation—for cognition. “A little bit of caffeine can provide an enhancement to your focus,” says Gee.
Research continues to discover foods that protect or enhance brain functions. The B vitamins are essential, according to a study published in the journal Nutrients earlier this year. They can be found in fruit, vegetables, whole grains, meat, beans, fortified cereals, poultry, fish, and other sources. Wild blueberries have been shown to have a positive effect on brain function too, according to a 2008 study from Greece. And a 2012 study showed that low to moderate wine consumption may protect older people from cognitive decline.
Putting it all together
All good news, of course, but how does this research translate into everyday eating?
One way to easily integrate all these foods into everyday meals, says Gee, is to follow the MIND diet—designed just for this purpose. Created by Martha Clare Morris, Ph.D., at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, the MIND diet suggests eating three servings of grains, a salad and another vegetable as well as one glass of wine daily. Snacking on nuts also recommended, as well as eating fish once a week, and beans, poultry and berries twice a week or more.
The MIND diet also restricts eating foods such as butter, cheese, and fried or fast food to small amounts each week.
Based on years of research, the MIND diet is a hybrid of the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet, which is designed to help people lower blood pressure and lose weight. (DASH stands for dietary approaches to stop hypertension.) People who stick with the MIND diet over time may decrease their risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
But Gee stresses that for best brain functioning, other lifestyle habits are just as important.
A good night’s sleep, and other brain boosters
“One key thing for the health of our minds is 7 to 9 hours sleep,” says Gee. “When sleep patterns are interrupted, daytime performance is affected, causing memory lapses and the inability to multitask, and to have patience.”
Exercise is also critical. “Exercise improves metabolism and promotes healthier weight,” says Gee. “A number of studies show that for people who don’t exercise, they get less endorphins and their minds close down.”
Doing puzzles and games, working on craft and art projects and socializing also help maintain cognitive function, he says, in part because these activities can alleviate anxiety and depression.
“When you’re active, you keep your mind sharp,” says Gee. “Shake it up—do Sudoku, draw in a coloring book, or play a computer game that makes you really concentrate. And when you read something, share it with another person—this all helps you.”