Four Tips for Keeping Our Brains at their Best

Thursday, July 6, 2017

By Michelle Jaelin, Registered Dietitian

Did you know that nutrition and healthy habits can help improve your cognitive fitness? Evidence suggests that diet and lifestyle factors can have an impact on your memory and brain function![i] These factors can have positive impacts in many areas in your life. Here are some helpful tips to improve cognitive function as you age, and help decrease the risk of age-related cognitive impairment, including conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

  • 1. Nutrition

It was once thought that food’s sole purpose was to provide energy for the body, but nutrition is now appreciated for its role in disease prevention. For cognitive function in particular, the fats and oils we consume are a key factor. Diets high in saturated and trans fats, often associated with “junk” foods, have been shown to decrease cognitive function, while diets high in polyunsaturated and omega 3 fatty acids have been proven to be heroes in preserving memory.[ii]

Tip: The Mediterranean diet includes several foods that support our brain health and are high in healthy unsaturated fats:[iii]

  • The diet emphasizes vegetables, fruit, olive oil and whole grains that can help reduce the risk of memory-damaging stroke.
  • Fish are high in omega 3 fatty acids, which have been linked to healthier blood vessels and less sticky plaque residues in the brain, as well as improved mental health.

B vitamins – in particular vitamins B6, B12, and folate (B9) – play a role in homocysteine metabolism.[iv] Elevated levels of homocysteine is a risk factor for stroke and Alzheimer’s disease.[v]

Tip: Eating a varied diet from whole foods can ensure adequate B vitamin intake:[vi]

  • Vitamin B6 comes from meat, fish, nuts, enriched cereals and lentils.
  • Vitamin B12 can be found in eggs, milk, cheese meat, shellfish, soy-based meat substitutes and some fortified rice and soy beverages.
  • Folate (vitamin B9) can be found in dark green vegetables such as broccoli, spinach, as well as in dried legumes such as chickpeas, beans and lentils. In Canada, folic acid is added to enriched white flour and pasta.[vii]

Antioxidants, such as vitamins C and E, have been proven to decrease inflammation for healthier blood vessels, and can help reduce cognitive decline as we get older.[viii]

Tip: Many foods high in vitamins C and E can be combined in meals or snacks:[ix]

  • A small handful of almonds (high in vitamin E) eaten with oranges or strawberries (high in vitamin C) come together for an antioxidant-rich power snack!
  • A stir-fry with spinach, cubed butternut squash (vitamin E), red peppers and broccoli (vitamin C) makes an excellent side dish for dinner.

In addition to good nutrition, many other factors can help us maintain our cognitive function:

  • 2. Cognitive Activity

Activities that exercise the brain, such as crossword puzzles, brain training games such as board games and card games, attending a workshop or learning a new language have been shown to help improve cognitive health in older adults.[x]

Tip: Try out a new class at your local community centre to train your brain to learn something new!

  • 3. Physical Activity

Cardiovascular fitness expands blood flow and oxygen delivery to the brain, maintaining brain volume.[xi]

Tip: Get exercise every day. Try going for a 30-minute walk!

  • 4. Social Engagement

There is published evidence which demonstrates that older adults with fewer social ties are at greater risk for cognitive decline.[xii]

Tip: Join a social club in your area, call up a friend or make time to see family.

It’s never too late to think about maintaining brain health and memory. Try some of these suggestions today to keep your brain at its best with small and simple changes that stick!

This article has been sponsored by BOOST®, but all comments and opinions are my own.

Michelle Jaelin Registered Dietitian Michelle Jaelin is a Toronto-based registered dietitian who creatively brings her expertise in the science of nutrition to television, print and media communications as the NutritionArtist. Michelle holds an Honours of Bachelor of Fine Arts in Visual Arts and a Bachelor of Applied Science in Nutrition and Food.

 

[i] Harvard Medical School. “Boost your memory by eating right.” Harvard Health Publications, 2012. Retrieved from: http://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/boost-your-memory-by-eating-right

[ii] Gomez-Pinilla, F. “Brain foods: the effects of nutrients on brain function.” Natural Review Neuroscience, 2017. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2805706/

[iii] Harvard Medical School. “Boost your memory by eating right.”Harvard Health Publications, 2012. Retrieved from: http://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/boost-your-memory-by-eating-right

[iv] Kennedy, D.O. “B Vitamins and the Brain: Mechanisms, Dose and Efficacy—A Review.” Nutrients, 2016. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26828517

[v] Rozycka A, Jagodzinski PP, Kozubski W, Lianeri M, Dorszewska J. “Homocysteine Level and Mechanisms of Injury in Parkinson's Disease as Related to MTHFR, MTR, and MTHFD1 Genes Polymorphisms and L-Dopa Treatment.” Curr Genomics, 2013. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3924248/

[vi] Dietitians of Canada. “B Vitamins.” Your Health, 2017. Retrieved from: https://www.dietitians.ca/Your-Health/Nutrition-A-Z/B-Vitamins.aspx (Accessed June 2, 2017)

[vii] National Institutes of Health. “Folate.” Factsheets, 2017.

Retrieved from:https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Folate-HealthProfessional/ (Accessed June 2, 2017)

[viii] National Institutes of Health. “Vitamin E.” Factsheets, 2017. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminE-HealthProfessional/  (Accessed June 2, 2017)

[ix] Williams, K. & Kemper, S. “Exploring Interventions to Reduce Cognitive Decline in Aging.” Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services, 2010. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2923489/

[x] Cassel, CK. (2002) “Use it or lose it: activity may be the best treatment for aging.”

[xi] Etnier JL, Nowell PM, Landers DM, Sibley BA. “A meta-regression to examine the relationship between aerobic fitness and cognitive performance.” Brain Research Reviews, 2006. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16490256

[xii] Williams, K. & Kemper, S. “Exploring Interventions to Reduce Cognitive Decline in Aging.” Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services, 2010. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2923489/