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Brain Food?

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Diet and NutritionDementia or what is called cognitive decline becomes more common with age. Nutrition research on diet and brain health has been sparse until now.   It is generally assumed that what is good for the heart is also good for the brain. So what else do we know so far?  It is thought that dementia of any type begin or are exacerbated either by one or more of the following processes:

  • Chronic inflammation
  • Damage by free radicals
  • Excess blood glucose levels that fuel high insulin levels

Inflammation:  Do Fats Matter?  

The healthier fats such as monounsaturated and some polyunsaturated fats such as omega-3 fats  help improve brain function and have anti-inflammatory properties.  So olive oil, sesame oil, walnut oil and flax seed oil are the preferred oils.  Fish, avocado, and all nuts and seeds such as ground flax seed also contain a high percentage of mono-and polyunsaturated fats.   Some research has found that the healthier fats may also be protective against Parkinson’s disease.

A study of 270 older adults and found those who ate fish at least once a week – baked or broiled, not fried – had a greater volume of gray matter in the brain in areas important in Alzheimer’s disease.  Fish consumption was also associated with sharply lower rates of developing mild cognitive impairment or dementia.  Only 3.2% of those with the highest fish intake and greatest preservation of gray matter were found to have developed mild cognitive impairment or dementia compared to the 30.8% of non-fish eaters who’d suffered cognitive decline

Free Radicals – Bring on the Antioxidants

Consuming more antioxidants in foods may reducing the damaging effects of free radicals – supplements have not produced their promised results.  We meet free radicals every day from our own bodies (immune system, energy production, iron reactions, exercise) as well as from the environment (cigarette smoke, pollutants and pesticides, radiation, UV light, ozone).

Antioxidants are best found in highly colored fruits and vegetables and most plant foods. In the Nurses Health Study, women who ate the most fruits and vegetables had a slower rate of cognitive decline than women who were not eating many of either.

Reducing Blood Sugar and Insulin – Go Complex, Avoid the Simple (Carbs)

If the blood sugar remains high (hyperglycemia), diabetes type 2 will cause long-term damage to eyes, kidneys, heart and blood vessels.  People with type 2 diabetes have a greater risk of developing cognitive decline and dementia.

Choose unrefined carbohydrates (whole grains) and limit refined carbohydrates (white foods – rice, pasta, white bread). These foods generally cause a rapid rise in blood sugar and insulin pours into the blood.  Excess levels of either blood glucose or insulin can damage nerve cells and promote fat storage.

There are other areas of research in diet and brain health worth noting.

Homocysteine is an amino acid and its involvement in brain health is still a topic of ongoing research since results have been inconsistent.   High levels have been linked to heart disease, stroke and dementia.  Eating foods higher in folate and vitamin B12 assist in DNA synthesis and ultimately help to maintain healthy nerve cells.

Calorie Restriction.  Ongoing research on calorie restriction may yield some clues to keeping the brain young.   Italian researchers found a molecule called CREB1 that was triggered by calorie restriction and that it mediates the beneficial effects of the diet by turning on another group of molecules linked to longevity, the “sirtuins”.  This finding is consistent with the fact that CREB1 is known to regulate important brain functions as memory, learning and anxiety control.  The bottom line: overeating may cause brain aging and eating less may help keep the brain young.

Choline Could Help Keep Your Brain Sharp .  Choline is a nutrient related to the B vitamins and is found in egg yolks, chicken, milk, fish, peanut butter, potatoes, cauliflower, tomatoes, banana, oranges, whole gains, sesame and flax seeds along with the food additive lecithin.  Tufts researchers analyzed data on 1400 people aged 36 to 83 from the Framingham study.  They completed questionnaires and then took memory and cognitive tests and underwent MRI scans.  Those with the highest dietary choline intake did better on the tests and were less likely to show areas of “white-matter hypersensitivity” in the brain, possible signs of blood vessel damage linked to dementia.

Research on diet and dementia needs to be increased;  however, it is becoming increasingly hopeful that dietary factors although not curative can play a role in maintaining brain health as we age.

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One thought on “Brain Food?

  1. Pingback: Excessive Brain Damage Can Eat « Health of the Day

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