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Food for Thought

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Can healthy eating help your brain stay sharp?

As an organ, the brain is no mere blood-pump or air filter. It’s more. It’s you. That’s why dementia is so devastating, and why these words from Greg Cole, Ph.D., are so heartening:

“For the majority of people, studies are showing you can probably slow down cognitive decline enough to escape disease altogether,” says Cole, associate director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at the University of California, Los Angeles. Though Cole doesn’t know exactly how to do this (nor does anyone else), eating habits might help.

How? As we age, our brains turn more sluggish as globs of a protein called amyloid accumulate between our neurons (nerve cells). Inflammation and oxidative damage accompany this protein buildup, nicking cell membranes and interrupting signals between neurons. Typically, this poses no real problem—a few “senior moments” here and there. But a downward dementia spiral can occur in some people if over time too many proteins gunk together and too much inflammation and oxidative damage erodes cells.

Help From the Sea
A diet packed with protective nutrients could potentially slow this process enough to fend off dementia, says Cole. Intriguingly, one of the most powerful anti-aging soldiers is the original brain food: fish, full of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids.

An observational study of 3,718 elderly people in the Chicago Health and Aging Project found that eating just one fish meal a week is linked to a 10 percent slower rate of cognitive decline. “That translates to three or four more good years for your brain,” says epidemiologist Martha C. Morris, who conducted the study at Rush University Medical Center. Other observational research has found that fatty fish like tuna or salmon are associated with a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, though only some found omega-3 fatty acids to be the reason.

Another possible legion of brain protectors are antioxidants like vitamin E—though here researchers are more cautious. Most promising is vitamin E from foods such as grains, nuts, milk and vegetable oils; Morris’ research found that diets rich in vitamin-E-containing foods were associated with reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

A Produce Prescription
Other antioxidants, such as the polyphenols found in colorful fruits and vegetables like blueberries, strawberries, and spinach, the catechins in tea, and even compounds in herbs like sage and turmeric, are all showing promise in cell culture and animal studies. For his part, Cole is especially bullish on turmeric; curcumin, its yellow pigment, was found in his and other labs to also be an inflammation- and amyloid-fighter.

The B vitamin folate is also attracting notice; large-scale observational studies like the Veterans Affairs Normative Aging Study have linked high dietary folate in foods like leafy greens and beans with less cognitive decline. Now that grain foods are fortified with folate, getting enough of this nutrient should be easier.

Fish, folate, fruits and vegetables—it’s not hard, really, to help maintain your brain. “People can lower their risk of Alzheimer’s disease by doing things that are really wimpy, like just one fish meal a week,” muses Cole. “To me, that’s amazing.”
—Rachael Moeller Gorman