Here’s how to keep your mental edge as you age
A forgotten phone number. A misplaced set of keys. A former colleague's name, stuck on the tip of the tongue. Are these moments of mental fog a normal sign of aging, or are they an indication of something more serious? If you’re a baby boomer in your 50s or early 60s, you’ve probably asked yourself that question from time to time.
You may be relieved to know that you have some say in determining the answer. Following a healthy diet is one important way to help keep yourself sharp in your golden years. Here’s why: Your brain is organized with much the same vasculature (the structure of arteries and veins) as your heart, and as such is prone to similar breakdowns, which we see subtly and slowly via cognitive decline, or rapidly and brutally, as with a stroke. Put simply, then, eating well for your heart also helps your head.
So what are the key components of a brain-healthy diet?
Focus on the good fats.
Omega-3 fatty acids from oily fish such as salmon, anchovies and sardines keep the arteries flexible, especially compared with the saturated animal fats from fatty steaks, ribs, full-fat cheeses, sausages and bacon, which tend to encourage plaque formation that can rupture and cause a stroke. For good mental health, aim to consume oily fish twice per week.
Go nuts for nuts.
Nuts not only contain healthy monounsaturated fats that are good for your arteries, they also contain magnesium for healthy blood pressure and fiber for cholesterol control (cholesterol does build up in the arteries that lead to your brain). Try a handful of nuts at least three to four times per week (daily is fine – just limit your portions).
Watch the salt.
Too much sodium can raise blood pressure, increasing your risk of stroke. By reading labels and choosing lower-sodium foods, or, better yet, preparing more of your own food from scratch using herbs, spices, garlic and pepper for flavor, you can easily cut your sodium intake, preferably to less than 2,400 mg per day.
Go bold and bright.
You've probably heard it before, but for good reason: Choosing dark green vegetables such as chard and richly hued fruits such as berries helps not only to provide magnesium, fiber and potassium (another blood pressure controller), but also compounds such as anthocyanins, a component in blueberries thought to support your ability to problem-solve as you age.
Supplements for Brain Health
As a society that tends to focus on so-called "magic bullets," we love the idea of popping a pill to get the results we want. The problem with pills, however, is that the extracted form of a nutrient rarely matches up with the complex whole form found in food.
So when researchers examined the benefits of fish oil supplements or berry and spinach extracts, the results were mixed. This is partly a function of the challenges of designing good studies and replicating them several times in different populations, but it also may be because food is, nutritionally speaking, greater than the sum of its parts. With that caveat, however, you may be wondering how some of the other popular supplements stacked up when it comes to preserving the functions of an aging brain.
Once thought to play an important role in preventing cognitive decline, research on B-vitamins simply hasn't panned out. In one well-controlled study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2008, researchers who gave 400 men with mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease a mix of vitamin B6, B12 and folic acid did not see an effect on any cognitive measures after 18 months.
There have been only a couple of studies on the sunshine vitamin's role in the aging brain, and so far, it appears that there is a relationship between low levels of vitamin D in the bloodstream and an increased risk for cognitive decline. These early studies, however, can't yet point to vitamin D being the cause of the change in brain function, only that there is an association. No studies on vitamin D supplements have been published yet.
Long touted as a supplement for memory and concentration, gingko and its effect on the brain have been studied over the years with inconsistent results. Since most of the early trials had design flaws, only the four most recent trials are considered valid. Of these, three showed no effect, and one showed a very large benefit from gingko supplementation.
The Bottom Line
Keeping the contents of your cranium sharp requires a combination of good genetics, a challenging mental environment and making the healthier choice more often than not. Of course, enjoyment of food is always a priority, but by choosing a chicken curry over a 20-ounce porterhouse, or by snacking on blueberries and yogurt instead of a muffin, you're not only helping your waistline, but your gray matter, too. And that's good news for anyone who's ever ended up finding their keys in the fridge.
Columnist Jennifer Sygo is Director of Nutrition for Cleveland Clinic Canada, which offers executive physicals, prevention and wellness counseling and personal healthcare management in Toronto. This column originally appeared in The National Post.
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