More and more, studies are showing that what you eat can help your mind and memory, from infancy to old age.
To really uncover the secret of a clear mind late in life, though, I turned to the people who walk the walk. Some of the longest-lived people in the U.S. are from Cache County in the far northeast corner of Utah, where a majority of folks are Mormon and their beliefs shape a lifestyle that’s relatively free of vices like caffeine, tobacco and alcohol. Many are open to taking nutritional supplements and have the support of a close-knit community—all factors that may pave the way to a long and healthy life. Scientists have been carefully following 90 percent of the elderly population here—around 5,000 people—for 13 years, to see which part of their lifestyle plays the largest role in their longevity. The researchers have documented foods the residents have eaten, the activities they’ve done, the jobs they’ve had. They drew blood and tested cognition, and revisited the subjects about every three years to see why they live such long, healthy lives.
I asked Peter Zandi, Ph.D., an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and a researcher on the study, what he’s found out about nutritional influences on mind decline, and he put it in a single word: antioxidants. “People who took high-dose supplements of both vitamin E [from 400 to 1,000 IU daily] and vitamin C [500 to 1,000 mg or more] had on the order of 60 to 65 percent reduction of the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease,” Zandi says. “That’s huge. This led us to the notion that it’s really the synergistic effects of both that may afford protection.” (Currently, the Institute of Medicine’s daily recommendation for vitamin E is 22 IU [15 mg] and 75 to 90 mg for vitamin C.) Zandi thinks this vitamin partnership might work because vitamin E is a potent antioxidant that can slip inside cells and mop up the damaging free radicals, while vitamin C waits patiently outside and replenishes vitamin E when it comes back out so it can continue working.
Anytime the body turns glucose into energy, free radicals are produced and oxidation (or damage) to tissue can occur. “The brain uses more energy than any other organ in the body, [thus] the brain is more susceptible to oxidative damage than any other organ in the body,” explains Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, Ph.D., who recently analyzed 160 studies on food’s effect on the brain. A professor of neurosurgery and physiological science at UCLA, Gomez-Pinilla published his meta-analysis this past July in Nature Reviews Neuroscience.
But hold off on buying that mega-antioxidant formula just yet: though some other studies have supported this work, not all are positive, and most experts advise avoiding antioxidant supplements until all the answers are in. Large doses of antioxidants can sometimes have a paradoxical, pro-oxidizing effect and cause cellular damage. However, the research is a strong argument for including more vitamin E-rich foods like walnuts, almonds, sunflower seeds and dark greens in your diet, along with plenty of citrus fruits, tomatoes, cantaloupe and other foods abundant in vitamin C.
Of course, one time-proven, antioxidant-rich way of eating doesn’t involve supplements at all: Mediterranean diets, famously protective against heart disease, may have promise in preventing Alzheimer’s disease as well. Recent studies suggest that people who most closely adhere to the dietary patterns long practiced in the countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea—plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, little meat, occasional fish and liberal olive oil—have significantly lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease later in life. Researchers believe that the antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids and other micronutrients this way of eating offers may work synergistically to reduce the risk.