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Feed your brain

Juliette Kellow and Dr Sarah Brewer take a look at some of the best foods to eat for brain health

We can’t reverse all the brain changes that come with getting older. But as we find out about how ageing affects the brain, research offers up new food solutions to slow cognitive decline, boost mood, improve memory, and protect against dementia and stroke.

As we age...

Our life’s experiences continue to shape our brains alongside a sequence of physical and chemical changes. Discover how what you eat can help redress the balance of age-related changes.

Foods to avoid

Evidence suggests risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are similar to those for heart disease, so a heart-friendly diet that limits salt and saturated and trans fats is also brain-friendly.

Salt – High salt intake increases the risk of high blood pressure, which in turn increases the risk of having a stroke. Don’t add salt during cooking or to meals, limit processed foods, and choose lower-salt options wherever possible.

“Bad” fats – Several, although not all studies, indicate negative relationships between saturate and trans fat intake and risk of cognitive problems. One study showed high intakes of saturates (26g a day) were linked to double the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease as those eating 13g a day.

New brain cells are made

An adult brain has about 100 billion nerve cells – or neurons. As we get older, these numbers decrease and this decline tends to start in our 20s. But it’s reassuring to know that certain parts of our brain continue to create new neurons via the process of neurogenesis. The hippocampus (a part of the brain that’s key in learning and memory formation) is one such centre. And by the age of 50, all the neurons in the hippocampus we were born with will have been replaced by new ones. Research shows that we can influence neurogenesis via our lifestyle (via physical activity and dealing with stress) as well as through what we eat (with berries being heralded for their neurogenetic benefits).

The brain shrinks

The brain is super organised: the cell bodies of neurons occupy its grey matter, while its white matter is home to the connecting fibres between neurons. From young adulthood the brain’s white matter is diminishing – about 15 per cent across a lifetime – and this white matter plays an important role in mood, walking, and balance. Information processing, thinking, and memory are functions that reside within the grey matter. The volume of grey matter also diminishes with age, but it’s not until significant reductions are seen that cognitive decline and dementia arise. Foods can counteract age-related reductions in cognitive powers.

Sleep patterns can change

The body’s master clock, which sits in the brain’s hypothalamus, controls the production of various hormones, including those that influence sleep – melatonin and serotonin. The rhythm of changing levels of these hormones gives us our sleep/wake cycle. Many people believe that as you get older you need less sleep, but this isn’t true: adults continue to need about 7–9 hours’ sleep a night. Many healthy older adults report few sleep problems, but some experience a shift in their cycles that causes them to wake up in the early hours of the morning. If your sleep patterns are changing then take a look at what you’re eating to see how it can make a difference.

A study found that adults aged 60–93 who ate curry at least once a month performed the best in cognitive tests.

Foods for the brain

The brain receives a soup of chemicals via the bloodstream that enable it to function. Below are some foods which provide key brain-healthy nutrients.

Eggs are a rich source of choline, which is vital for the production of one of the brain’s neurotransmitters, acetylcholine. What’s more, a study has shown that proteins similar to those found in egg whites stimulate brain cells that help us stay awake and alert.

A review of studies published in 2017 found that eating anthocyanin-rich foods improves verbal learning and memory. Previous studies have shown that eating two servings of berries a week can slow down age-related cognitive decline. All red and blue berries contain anthocyanins – they’re responsible for their colour.

Tea and coffee
Research links a higher intake of caffeine (present in tea and coffee) to a lower risk of dementia. One study found that women with high caffeine intakes had less cognitive decline over four years than those consuming low amounts.

Leafy greens
Folate is a B vitamin that’s vital for brain function and emotional wellbeing. A study found a supplement of folate reduced brain shrinkage in adults at risk of dementia. Spinach, brussels sprouts, and kale top the folate list.

Curry powder
Turmeric is often singled out for its potential protection against dementia via the chemical curcumin. But curry powder (with extra chilli, ginger, coriander, cumin, and pepper) may offer even more brain function benefits.

One of the omega-3 fats found naturally in fish – DHA – is vital for brain function throughout life. All fish, including white fish and shellfish, contain this omega-3 fat but oily fish are the richest source, with mackerel ranking top.

Extracted from Eat Better, Live Longer by Juliette Kellow BSc, RD and Dr Sarah Brewer MD. DK, £16.99.

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