3 important strategies

Imagine being 90 (or 100) and having the sharp memory and cognitive skills of your younger self. It’s possible with a few lifestyle tweaks, some of which involve your taste buds. Yes, you can literally eat your way to a healthy brain.

Genes and lifestyle

Faulty genes can increase the risk of cognitive decline and memory loss, but the acquired lifestyle-related risks seem to affect our brains more.

“When we consume unhealthy foods, our brain and body are out of balance, so restoring it [balance] means we must eat as many whole foods as possible,” says Orsha Magyar, MSc, RHN.

A healthy diet, sleep, exercise, and challenging our brains by learning new things are all essential for mental health. Add to this socializing and managing stress (high levels of stress-inducing cortisol can increase dementia risk).

A diet rich in antioxidant vitamins such as A, E, and C from vegetables and fruits, polyphenols (think colors!), unsaturated fats, and plenty of fiber (gut bacteria preferred) can lower levels of body and brain inflammation and reduce oxidative stress.

Saturated and trans fats, present in animal products such as dairy and meat, can have a negative impact on cognition and memory.

Mind the microbiome

Age-related changes in our gut microbiome and an unhealthy diet can increase brain inflammation and precipitate neurodegeneration.

You can boost the number of good bacteria that secrete short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs, which are anti-inflammatory) by making prebiotics, probiotics, and fiber part of your daily meals.

Eat fiber-rich meals that include beans or lentils and colorful salads with leafy greens and other fresh veggies. Add brain-protective spices and herbs for flavor.

Choose a brain-protective diet

High in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes, olive oil, fish, and the occasional glass of red wine, the Mediterranean diet is possibly the healthiest, says Magyar, and has long been associated with a decreased risk of dementia and other chronic diseases.

A 2020 study found that a variation of the Mediterranean diet that’s high in fish and vegetable consumption, with low alcohol, provided the best protection against cognitive impairment, even in people at risk genetically.

Not a fish eater? The MIND diet (a hybrid of the Mediterranean and DASH diets) is mostly plant based, encourages high consumption of berries and leafy greens with barely any fish, and has been found highly effective in AD prevention.

Supplement when needed

Aging affects our ability to absorb nutrients, as do certain diets and health conditions. For example, a healthy brain requires appropriate levels of vitamin B12, vitamin D, and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid found in fish) so if absorption is affected, supplements can help. But, says Magyar, “the focus should be on whole foods, since supplements are meant to add to a diet rather than replace it.”