Several foods and food groups can help contribute to increased brain health. Often, this is due to the vitamins and antioxidants within the foods that protect brain cells and neural pathways in the brain.
Many of these same foods have been proven to produce, or stimulate the production of, new neurons and pathways. These foods are often referred to as being “brain healthy.” Some examples include green leafy vegetables as well as other dark fruits and vegetables. Foods high in omega 3 fatty acids, such as many types of fish, also promote brain health.
These foods help decrease a person’s risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, slow progression of the disease, and in some instances help improve memory function in the mild stage of disease.
If you or your loved one are at risk for Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, or are in the early stages of the disease, including these brain healthy foods into your diet could be beneficial.
Dark fruits and vegetables
Certain foods are more “brain healthy” or “protective” than others, and these can help your loved one’s memory. These foods reduce damage to brain cells and in some instances increase memory retention and overall brain functioning.
Many of these foods are dark-skinned fruits and vegetables, but in particular spinach, kale, and collard greens are shown to have the most potent and beneficial effects on brain cells. Dark leafy greens, such as spinach, have high amounts of carotenoids and flavonoids, which are nutrients that can help decrease mental decline by almost 40 percent.
For the greatest impact, your loved one should eat three or more servings of these foods per day. The main reason that many of these fruits and vegetables are considered to be brain healthy is because they contain high amounts of antioxidants. Antioxidants are most commonly found in fruits and vegetables and help prevent or delay cell damage.
Some common forms of antioxidants found in brain healthy foods include vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta-carotene. All of these vitamins help delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia and/or help slow cognitive and physical decline in the earlier stages of the disease.
The following checklist highlights fruits and vegetables that are rich in antioxidants and are considered to be brain healthy. Checklist: Foods that are high in antioxidants
– Collard greens
– Brussel sprouts
– Alfalfa sprouts
– Red peppers
– Acai berries
Omega 3 fatty acids help brain function
Omega 3 fatty acids can help lower your or your loved one’s risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, and they can also help slow the progression of the disease in the early stages. Omega 3s can be found in several different types of foods, but they are mostly found in fish.
The reason omega 3s can be so helpful to brain health is because they increase the number of neurons in the brain, produce protective chemicals in the brain, and reduce the formation of plaques and tangles.
By consuming foods with this essential fatty acid, you can help improve your overall brain health and decrease cognitive decline. Checklist: Foods that are high in omega 3
– Fresh tuna (this should be eaten no more than two times a month because it has a high mercury content)
– Salmon (wild is best)
– Sea bass
– Grass-fed beef
– Krill oil and fish oil
– Flax seeds, or flax seed oil
– Canola oil
– Pumpkin seeds
– Mustard seeds
– Brussels sprouts
– Green vegetables (both leafy and others)
– Fortified products (eggs, milk, cereal, etc.)
You’ll notice that seafood, and especially fish, dominates the first half of this list. While eating fish is generally recognized as a healthy choice, mercury poisoning is considered to be a risk with certain varieties of fish.
In particular, lord mackerel, marlin, orange roughy, shark, swordfish, tilefish, ahi fish, and bigeye fish are all fish that contain abnormal amounts of mercury; note that of these fish, only tuna and mackerel are on the checklist above. What does this mean?
Potentially, if pregnant women are exposed to high levels of mercury, that could interfere with the brain development of their unborn children. Adults in general, however, have a low risk from mercury exposure.
Cooking has no effect on the mercury levels in fish, and it isn’t something you can taste, either. Other than mercury levels, PCBs and dioxins present another potential health hazard from eating fish. The checklist below lays out some food safety facts to consider with regard to fish. Checklist: Fish and shellfish safety guidelines
– Mercury exposure is primarily a risk for pregnant women, women who plan to become pregnant, women who are nursing, and children under the age of six, but most adults have low risk from mercury exposure.
– If an adult is concerned about exposure to mercury, that means limiting the consumption of fish high in mercury. From Checklist: Foods that are high in omega 3, that means limiting or avoiding the consumption of tuna and mackerel.
– Larger fish such as tuna and swordfish are likely to contain higher levels of mercury than smaller fish and shellfish such as squid, scallops, and sardines.
– Eat local, and in particular avoid fish imported from countries like China and Vietnam that have less rigorous management practices for ensuring harvested fish are safe. The US Food and Drug Administration only inspects about 2% of all fish imported to this country.
– Buy seafood from trusted sellers with high standards. Fresh fish is safe for purchase only if it is refrigerated or displayed on a bed of ice that is thick and fresh—that is, not melting. All fish should be well-separated in the display.
– Use your eyes, ears, and nose to select the best fish. Fish should be springy and resilient to the touch; it should not have an ammonia-like, fishy, or sour smell but should instead smell fresh and mild; and there should be no discoloration or darkening or drying around the edges.
– Any fish that will not be used within two days should be stored in a freezer.
– Thaw fish in the refrigerator overnight or, to thaw quickly, in a plastic bag immersed in cold water or in the microwave with the defrost setting, as long as the defrost cycle does not continue to the point that the fish is no longer icy and pliable.
– Cook most seafood to an internal temperature of 145°F.
– Seafood should never be left out of the refrigerator longer than two hours or one hour if the temperature is 90°F or above. For a picnic, pack seafood in ice. For parties, keep hot seafood hot and cold seafood cold.
– Throw away any shellfish with cracked or broken shells.
– Remember, higher levels of omega 3s are the potential benefit from eating many types of fish and shellfish. If you are concerned about the health risks of eating fish and shellfish or simply don’t like seafood, then try the non-seafood items listed in Checklist: Foods that are high in omega 3.
If your loved one is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, adding foods rich in omega 3s could help improve memory and slow progression of the disease. These improvements are often seen quickly and can be long-lasting if omega 3 consumption and healthy dietary practices are consistently observed.
Eating one to three servings of fish per week has the greatest positive benefits, especially when compared to taking fish oil supplements. Omega 3 supplements can be helpful, but your body will absorb and make use of the omega 3s present in natural sources more efficiently.
Although omega 3 fatty acids help improve memory and boost neuron development, the consumption of a consistently unhealthy and unbalanced diet can negate these positive benefits. For example, if you or your loved one eat three servings of healthy fish or other omega 3-rich foods a week but are otherwise eating foods high in saturated fat, cholesterol, and refined sugars, the omega 3 consumption will not prove beneficial.
A healthy, balanced diet is essential to getting the most vitamins and minerals out of foods. Positive benefits of omega 3 fatty acids have been seen in those with mild Alzheimer’s disease and dementia; however, studies have shown that omega 3 consumption has not proved beneficial to those with moderate to severe Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
It is best to start these nutritional changes before symptoms arise or at the first signs of cognitive decline. For individuals who carry the E4 allele, a genetic risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease, omega 3s have not been shown to help slow progression of the disease or lessen symptoms, even in the earliest stages.