The idea that it is possible to better one’s health through a healthy diet may seem like a new notion, considering all the recent media reports on the topic. However, this hypothesis is nearly 2,500 years old, as evidenced by Hippocrates’ ancient advice to physicians to “leave your drugs in the chemist’s pot if you can heal the patient with food.” The fact that today’s emerging research has scientifically connected diet to disease prevention merely confirms what Hippocrates said way back then.
Although most of the studies to date have centered on the power of food to reduce cardiovascular disease and prevent cancer, diet can also have a profound effect on brain health. By nourishing your brain with the right foods, you can boost its levels of endurance, cerebration, acuity and cognizance, as well as its overall mental reserves. In the last issue we examined the latest research on protective brain foods. In this installment you will learn the best diet to support your brain’s functions, along with some sure-fire strategies to maintain your wit for a lifetime.
Follow Your Heart
According to an extensive report released by an expert panel of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), what’s good for the heart is also good for the head (Hendrie et al. 2006). Reducing heart-health risk factors may help maintain cognitive reserves while decreasing the risk for Alzheimer’s disease (AD) throughout the aging process. The brain relies on a vast network of blood vessels to ensure adequate nutrient, energy and oxygen delivery to its cells or neurons. Transporting the brain nutrients depends a great deal on the integrity of the cardiovascular system.
Maintaining healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels is critical to heart and brain health; elevated cholesterol levels can contribute to clogged arteries in the brain. There is a great deal of scientific evidence linking diets high in saturated fats, cholesterol and trans fats to increased AD risk. In a recent Chicago Health and Aging Project trial involving more than 800 Chicago residents, researchers found that high intakes of saturated fat doubled the risk of getting AD, whereas moderate amounts of trans fats doubled or tripled the risk (Morris et al. 2003). Emerging research also suggests that high levels of cholesterol can result in brain cells being more prone to dementia.
Researchers have found an association between brain health and levels of vitamin B as well. A recent study showed a link between memory decline and AD in elderly individuals with suboptimal levels of B vitamins, specifically folic acid, vitamin B12 and B6, in individuals with AD (Kado et al. 2005). That’s why many health experts recommend taking a daily multivitamin supplement. “When it comes to brain health, taking a simple B-vitamin-complex supplement is well worth the effort of supplementing,” says R. Malcolm Stewart, MD, a Dallas-based neurologist and director of the American Parkinson Disease Association.
Maintaining a healthy weight as we age is just as important to the brain as it is to the heart. Excess weight is associated with vascular diseases, such as heart disease and stroke, cognitive problems and dementia. A recent study of 1,449 people in Finland concluded that a body mass index (BMI) greater than 30 (the definition of obesity) is associated with double the risk of dementia (Kivipelto et al. 2005). Midlife obesity, elevated cholesterol levels and increased systolic blood pressure are also linked to a much higher risk of dementia (Kivipelto et al. 2005), while elevated BMI has been associated with a higher risk of Parkinson’s disease (PD) (Hu et al. 2006).
The Bottom Line: A heart-healthy diet and regular physical activity can promote weight loss and arterial health while decreasing the risk of cognitive decline.
Arm Your Brain With Antioxidants
Due to its high oxygen demands, the brain is particularly susceptible to oxidative stress, a process that is characterized by the production of free radicals and that leads to cellular dysfunction and ultimately cell death (Morris et al. 2002). Studies have shown that the effects of decades of free-radical attacks on areas of the brain may contribute to disease, diminished mental functioning, gradual memory loss and premature aging of the brain (Englehart et al. 2002). In the cases of PD and AD, damage from oxidative stress is believed to play a crucial role in the death of neurons and in the degenerative brain function that characterizes these diseases.
The best way to protect brain cells and membranes from oxidative stress and to reduce the number of damaging free radicals is to consume a diet rich in the antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables. Antioxidants have been shown to boost cognitive health and minimize disease risk. One study that tracked more than 1,500 Japanese-American men and women found that drinking fruit and vegetable juices at least three times a week may reduce the risk of AD by as much as 75% (Qi et al. 2006). The researchers in this study theorized that certain polyphenols—natural antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables—may have protected the participants’ brain cells from the type of plaque damage thought to cause AD.
Another study confirmed this antioxidant connection. Researchers at the Rush Institute for Healthy Aging, in Chicago, who followed 3,718 Chicago seniors (age 65 and over) found that eating 2.8 servings of vegetables per day helped slow the rate of mental decline by roughly 40% compared with eating only 0.9 serving per day (Morris et al. 2006). Green leafy vegetables, particularly spinach, seemed to produce the strongest benefits for study participants in retarding age-related central nervous system function and cognitive behavioral decline (Kang, Ascherio & Grodstein 2005).
Vitamin E is also important for brain health (Morris et al. 2005b). Two separate studies conducted in Chicago and Rotterdam reported that diets rich in vitamin E appear to significantly decrease the rate of mental decline and may help some people lower their risk for AD (Englehart et al. 2002; Foley & White 2002).
The Bottom Line: Most experts recommend getting antioxidants and vitamin E through diet, rather than through supplements. Consuming a varied diet provides the broadest range of complementary nutrients, phytochemicals and antioxidants to work synergistically in maximizing brain health. Therefore, the best place to assemble your antioxidant arsenal against cognitive decline is in the produce section, the frozen fruit and vegetable case and the whole-grain aisles of your local grocery store.
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Hu, G., et al. 2006. Body mass index and the risk of Parkinson’s disease. Neurology, 67 (12), 1955-59.
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