Last updated on June 6th, 2023 at 08:56 pm
With age, some level of cognitive decline is to be expected. However, age is the largest risk factor for more serious cognitive issues such as memory loss and dementia. These are defined as cognitive declines that interfere with independent functioning. While normal age-related cognitive decline may be a minor inconvenience, dementia is a serious and life-threatening disease.
For example, by age 45, the objective memory performance of individuals is lower than when they were in their twenties. The mental slips are minimal and do not progress into anything more serious. With dementia, of course, cognitive decline is much more serious.
We’ll explore some of the best brain foods for enhancing cognition and how they can improve memory and thinking processes in people of all ages.
Risk Factors For Cognitive Issues
Many conditions can cause dementia, such as depression, medication side effects, thyroid imbalances, and other medical issues. Risk factors for cognitive issues include smoking, lack of sleep, head trauma, and untreated high blood pressure or high cholesterol. Perhaps more interesting is the link to nutrition that many of these causes and risk factors have.
Recent research has shown that a healthy lifestyle, including a balanced diet, regular exercise, stress management, and mental stimulation, can protect brain health as you age.
Just as with medication, there is no single food you can eat to ensure your brain stays healthy. Nutritionists recommend following a healthy diet consisting of many vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains. Opt for plant sources and fish as the best protein providers.
Your brain is composed of approximately 60% fat, half of which consists of omega-3 fatty acids. Unsurprisingly, healthy fats, such as those found in avocados, nuts, seeds, and cold water fatty fish, are important for brain health. Limit saturated fats as much as you can.
Some key nutrients for brain health include omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, and antioxidants. Increasing your consumption of foods rich in these nutrients will help support a healthy brain, which could translate to enhanced cognition.
The following foods have been linked to enhanced cognition.
1. Leafy Green Vegetables
You hear about green, leafy vegetables all the time for a reason. Examples include kale, spinach, collards, and broccoli. These greens are high in vitamin K, lutein, folate, and beta-carotene, all supporting brain health. Research has down that leafy green vegetables may slow down cognitive decline.
Berries are rich in flavonoids. Flavonoids are a natural pigment in plants that give berries their color. According to research, flavonoids also aid in memory. One study of women found that eating two or more servings of strawberries and blueberries each week delayed their memory decline by up to two and a half years. Deeply colored berries such as blueberries contain anthocyanins, an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant-rich group of plant compounds.
Antioxidants are important for brain health as they protect against oxidative stress and inflammation. Both oxidative stress and inflammation can contribute to brain aging, cognitive decline, and neurodegenerative diseases.
Studies have shown that the antioxidants in blueberries accumulate in the brain and enhance communication between brain cells. Animal studies have also displayed the potential for blueberries to improve memory and delay short-term memory loss.
3. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
As mentioned earlier, fatty fish are a great source of healthy fats, particularly omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are unsaturated, related to the types of bonds within the molecules. The structure of fats greatly impacts their function and behavior in our bodies.
Omega-3 fatty acids have been linked to lower levels of beta-amyloid in the blood. Beta-amyloid is a protein that forms plaques in individuals with Alzheimer’s disease brains.
These plaques are damaging and contribute to cognitive decline. The brain utilizes omega-3 fatty acids to construct nerve and brain cells, crucial for learning and memory. Inadequate intake of omega-3s has been associated with learning disabilities and depression.
Ideally, eat fish two times per week. Mercury is a concern, so choose varieties that are low in mercury. Good options include salmon, cod, canned light tuna, and pollack. In case you need more convincing, one study found that those who ate baked or broiled fish regularly had high amounts of gray matter.
Gray matter is part of the brain with most nerve cells responsible for decision-making, memory, and emotion. If you do not like fish, other sources of omega-3 fatty acids include flaxseeds, avocados, walnuts, and of course, omega-3 supplements.
Walnuts are also high in omega-3 fatty acids. Nuts, in general, are a good source of protein and healthy fats, but walnuts seem to have links to brain health. One study associated high walnut intake with improved cognitive scores. Walnuts have high amounts of omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which also improves blood pressure and can protect your arteries.
Turmeric has become increasingly popular as a potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant. The active component in turmeric is called curcumin.
Curcumin has been shown to cross the blood-brain barrier, a protective barrier around the brain that only allows very specific molecules through. Curcumin can, therefore, directly benefit the cells in the brain.
The anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties of curcumin may improve memory in those with Alzheimer’s, clear amyloid plaques, ease depression, and help brain cells grow. Curcumin may delay age-related cognitive decline, but more research is needed in this area.
6. Tea and Coffee
The caffeine in tea and coffee has been suggested to improve cognition. One study showed that those with higher caffeine consumption scored higher on mental function tests. Another study linked caffeine intake with solidifying new memories. Coffee also contains antioxidants that help improve brain health.
Some positive brain effects of caffeine include increased alertness, improved mood, and sharpened concentration. Long-term coffee consumption has also been linked to a reduced risk of neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Green tea also contains caffeine and has been shown to boost brain function. Improvements include increased alertness, performance, memory, and focus.
Green tea has also been found to improve memory. Green tea contains L-theanine, an amino acid that can also cross the blood-brain barrier. L-theanine increases the activity of the neurotransmitter GABA, which plays an important role in reducing anxiety.
Green tea also contains polyphenols and antioxidants that may prevent cognitive decline and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
As mentioned earlier, vitamin B is important for brain health. Eggs are a rich source of vitamins B6, B12, folate, and choline. Choline is used by your body to create acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter involved in many body processes, including regulating mood and memory.
Two studies have linked high intakes of choline with improved memory and cognitive function. Egg yolks are one of the most concentrated sources of choline. B vitamins may help slow mental decline as you age, and B12 plays a role in creating brain chemicals and regulating blood sugar in the brain.
Folate deficiency is common in older adults and individuals with dementia. Studies have shown that supplementing with folic acid can help decrease age-related mental decline.
While there are no foods that will directly lead to enhanced cognition, the foods discussed in this article contain nutrients and compounds that support a healthy brain. Try incorporating some of these brain foods into your diet. Your brain will thank you!
Rick Kaselj MS, is a leading kinesiologist and injury specialist as well as co-creator of the best-selling Unlock Your Hip Flexors program. Rick creates exercise programs that help people heal injuries and eliminate pain, so they can go back to living a full, active, healthy life.