Gray matter gets a boost from good food
A forgotten phone number. A misplaced set of keys. An old 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? This is a question that troubles many, from boomers themselves to the medical community that will be supporting them in the coming decades.
Can your diet help keep you sharp in your golden years? Numerous signs point to a positive answer.
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 watch 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.
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 those of us who have found 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 on June 8, 2009.
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