8 Eating Habits To Slow Brain Aging, Says Nutritional Psychiatrist
As you grow older, moving into your 30s and 40s, your brain changes; it starts to shrink and continues to do so throughout the rest of your life. With that shrinkage can come changes in your cognitive abilities, which can become a cause for concern with respect to dementia and Alzheimer's disease.
But don't we all know someone in their late 80s or 90s who is sharp as a tack with a memory like an elephant? Why have those people avoided what seems to be an inevitable part of aging? Genetics has something to do with it, but more research is suggesting that diet does, too. Neuroinflammation can potentially be adjusted based on how we eat.
"While we don't have a nutritional cure for dementia today, there are now many studies that indicate different ways in which food may play a significant role in preventing or slowing cognitive decline," says Uma Naidoo, MD, a nutritional psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, director of Nutritional and Metabolic Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, author of This is Your Brain on Food: An Indispensable Guide to the Surprising Foods That Fight Depression, PTSD, ADHD, Anxiety, OCT and More, and trained chef. "Our food choices can definitely help us preserve our memories and clear our minds from the brain fog that sometimes disrupts the clarity of our lives."
Naidoo claims that diets high in fats and sugars can negatively affect the hippocampus, the part of the brain most involved in forming relational memories. On the flip side, the right kinds of foods can protect memory. Dr. Naidoo explains some key eating habits that may slow brain aging.
'MIND' what you put in your mouth.
Instead of cutting calories, you can focus on eating foods proven to support brain health. Fortunately, researchers have developed a diet to address this called the MIND diet. "MIND" stands for Mediterranean-DASH intervention for neurodegenerative delay. It's a combination of the Mediterranean-style diet and a diet designed to lower blood pressure and the DASH diet, or dietary approaches to stop hypertension.
"The important features of the MIND diet are that it is low in saturated fats, high in healthy oils, and with red meat eaten infrequently—two or fewer times a week," says Naidoo.
Green means go for it!
If going full in on calorie restriction or the MIND diet is too daunting, Naidoo recommends just filling your plate with the best memory-protecting foods. Begin with green leafy vegetables like the lettuce that make up tossed salads, kale, collards, and spinach. Eat several daily servings.
"I highlight leafy greens because they contain folate, vitamin E, carotenoids, and flavonoids, nutrients that protect against cognitive decline," says Naidoo.
Even more nutrient-dense are microgreens, along with vegetable greens that are harvested just after sprouting. "Microgreens have up to 40 times the nutrients of their mature counterparts," she adds.
Veg out daily.
Aim for at least three servings daily of colorful polyphenol-rich vegetables, like yellow and red peppers, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, peas, beets, squash, and eggplant. Cruciferous vegetables—like broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts—are also rich in an anti-inflammatory compound called sulforaphane, which studies show can protect against diseases that impact the brain.
Pick berries and munch nuts.
Colorful berries are a concentrated source of flavonoids and other brain-beneficial nutrients.
"Studies have shown that diets rich in blueberries reduce free radicals and inflammation in the brain," says Naidoo.
Nuts also are neuroprotective. "The vitamin E in peanut butter, dry-roasted almonds, hazelnuts, and sunflower seeds can help people suffering from stress and anxiety and symptoms of PTSD," she continues.
Love your olive oil.
"Extra-virgin olive oil—a heart-healthy fat—is a source of at least 30 phenolic compounds that are strong antioxidants and brain protectors," says Naidoo.
A 2019 study published in the journal Molecules found that a cooking technique using extra-virgin olive oil to make sofrito, a savory starter for many dishes, enhances the extraction of brain-protective polyphenols from sautéed vegetables, such as onion, garlic, bell peppers, tomatoes, and chilies.
Get more omega-3s.
In 2019, a meta-analysis of double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trials of patients with major depressive disorder showed that taking omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) relieved depression compared with the placebo.
"Omega-3 fatty acids promote brain health by lowering inflammatory markers and protecting neurons from excessive inflammation," says Naidoo.
The best sources of omega-3s are oily, cold-water fish like salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, and sardines. However, you can also enjoy omega-3-fortified foods like eggs and find omega-3s in plant sources like edamame, walnuts, and chia seeds.
Spice up your day.
Get into the habit of amping up the flavors in your cooking without adding calories and gain a brain boost.
"Turmeric, pepper, cinnamon saffron, rosemary, ginger, and other spices have been shown to help memory," says Naidoo.
Turmeric, the active ingredient in curcumin, is the star of the spice show. A 2019 review of animal studies in Current Neuropharmacology showed that curcumin could possibly reverse some brain damage caused by Alzheimer's disease. Another study published that same year found improvements in attention, cognition, and memory in people taking 90–1,500 milligrams of turmeric over 53 weeks.
"When taking turmeric, combine it with some black pepper. Black pepper may help curcumin absorption," says Naidoo.
What about wine?
"Heavy alcohol use increases the risk of all types of cognitive impairment and dementia," warns Naidoo.
However, Naidoo points to a 2019 meta-analysis of 28 studies that found that light to moderate alcohol use during the mid to late stages of adulthood was associated with a decreased risk of all types of cognitive impairment and dementia.
"If you drink alcohol, I always recommend moderation," advises Naidoo. "Alcohol can have many negative health effects, so talk to your doctor about other risk factors."