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Nutrition for Brain Health: A Delicious Way to Slow (and Possibly Prevent) Cognitive Decline

Sixty years ago, most people didn’t think so much about the nutritional value of the food they ate. Yes, it was generally accepted that vegetables are “good for you” and that sugary or salty snacks should be limited. For many of us, that was all we knew about nutrition.

That was back in the days before fast-food restaurants peppered the country from coast to coast. Before entire aisles in the grocery store were devoted to chips, candy, cookies, and highly processed foods. Before we knew what an important role diet plays in our overall health.

While we can’t go back and undo what’s been done, we can make changes going forward based on what we know now. Best of all, it may be a lot easier than you think!

  A Heart-Healthy Diet Benefits the Brain, Too

In the last few decades, research has demonstrated the health benefits of adopting a Mediterranean-style diet — one that features fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, seafood, and unsaturated fats, while limiting the intake of red meat, processed meats, and refined carbohydrates (such as baked goods and other foods with added sugar, sodium, and saturated fats).

Most recently, research has shown that this type of diet may help lower the risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, depression, and Alzheimer’s disease. It may also help to stave off cognitive decline that’s usually associated with aging.

In fact, it appears that the dietary recommendations for heart health are also good for brain health.

In an article published on the American Heart Association’s website in December 2020, Lisa Mosconi, PhD., director of the Weill Cornell Women’s Brain Initiative and associate director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic, said:

“Of all the organs in our body, the brain is the one most easily damaged by a poor diet. From its very architecture to its ability to perform, every aspect of the brain calls for proper food.”

Dr. Mosconi also noted in an article published in March 2020 at Ideas.Ted.com that while it’s best to make dietary changes before cognitive decline begins, the changes can enhance quality of life regardless of “age, genetics or medical predispositions.”

  Specific Foods for Brain Health

Lists of the best foods for elderly people to eat if they want to boost their brain health vary from one expert to the next. Still, many widely respected health institutions recommend certain types of food to slow cognitive decline, lower the risk of dementia, and improve memory:

Green vegetables. Yes, “going green” is good for your brain. Dark and leafy green vegetables such as kale, spinach, collards, and broccoli, are excellent sources of nutrients (e.g., beta carotene, folate, lutein and vitamin K) that appear to slow cognitive decline. Vitamin K is association with improvements in memory, as well.

Berries. Perfect for a snack any time of the day or even as dessert, a bowlful of berries is rich in antioxidants and memory-enhancing phytoflavinoids. If fresh berries aren’t available, frozen berries may pack an even more powerful nutritional punch. Dried berries are another choice — and they’re totally portable. Blueberries are the most nutrient-dense of them all.

Fruits high in vitamin C. Research indicates that getting a healthy amount of vitamin C (preferably in the diet rather than supplements) may protect against age-related cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. For the highest levels, go for citrus, guava, kiwi, tomatoes, strawberries, and bell peppers (which, botanically speaking, really are considered a fruit!).

Fatty fish. Tuna, salmon, and other fatty fish are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which have been associated with lower levels of beta amyloid in the blood and therefore may lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Omega-3 fatty acids are also necessary in the production of brain and nerve cells.

Nuts and seeds. Though the specific nutrients vary, nuts and seeds (and nut butters) are a good source of protein, healthy fats, and vitamin E — watch your portion size, as they’re also “rich” in calories. Walnuts are high in alpha-linolenic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid that has been linked with lower blood pressure and better scores on cognitive and memory tests.

Avocados. Guacamole fans rejoice! A study conducted in 2018 at Tufts University suggests that avocados may be almost as beneficial as blueberries are to brain health. They’re an excellent source of monounsaturated fats, fiber, and lutein, a nutrient that’s also good for eye health. Avocados are also rich in tyrosine, potassium, flavonoids, omega-3 fatty acids, oleic acid (an omega-9 fatty acid), and vitamin K — all brain boosters.

Eggs. With high levels of vitamin B6, vitamin B12, folic acid, lutein, and choline, eggs may be a good choice for protecting against cognitive decline and memory loss. Low levels of B vitamins have been linked to dementia. Choline, found in egg yolks, plays a role in the production of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that has been associated with better memory and mental function.

Coconut. We’re including coconut (and not necessarily coconut oil in particular) to this list although not all experts agree that it’s a healthy brain food. The medium-chain triglycerides found in coconut are metabolized into ketones — molecules that appear to protect brain neurons from the adverse effects of beta-amyloid peptides, which form the brain plaques associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

  Plant-Based Diets — Not the Same as Vegetarian or Vegan

As you can see from the information above, most of the foods recommended for a healthy brain come from plants.

There’s plenty of reliable information available on plant-based, vegetarian, and vegan diets, so we won’t go into a lot of detail here. Just know that adopting a plant-based diet, which is what the Mediterranean diet basically is, doesn’t mean giving up all meat, poultry, seafood, and dairy.

What it does mean is eating more foods derived from plants and scaling back on those that aren’t. That might entail eating more dairy-free or meatless meals each week. Or, you might try meals featuring vegetables, legumes, and grains as the main dish with a small portion of meat as a “side” dish. (Think of a large salad of mixed greens, chickpeas, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, bell peppers, tomatoes, and other vegetables tossed with pieces of chicken.)

As with any change in health routines, it’s best to check with a medical professional (in this case, perhaps a nutritionist or registered dietitian) before making significant changes to your diet.

  Healthy Snacks for Elderly People

As we get older, our dietary needs change. So do our sense of taste and sense of smell, as well as our appetite. All of these changes make it more important than ever to pay attention to the foods you consume.

Many older adults find that they don’t want (or need) to eat as much food as they did when they were younger, so meals may be smaller. Snacking can be a great way to get the nutrition you need — as long as the snacks are healthy!

What are some healthy snacks that are also good for the brain? You’ll find myriad options if you choose the various foods listed above when doing an online search. Here are a few to get you started:

• Smoothies made with spinach, kale, avocado, and/or fresh or frozen berries and other fruit — add some Greek yogurt or plant-based milk for protein and a creamy texture

• Homemade kale chips

• Chia seed pudding

• Fruit and/or whole-grain crackers with nut butters

• Salmon paté — add avocado for even better brain nutrition, and serve with crudités, greens, or flavorful seeded crackers • Fresh fruit dipped in dark chocolate — easy to make by microwaving chunks of a good-quality dark chocolate bar until melted

  Brain Food Can Also Be Therapy for the Soul

Many people have emotional connections to food. Some turn to food as a source of comfort. For others, an aroma wafting from the kitchen triggers fond memories from childhood, creating delight.

It’s not unusual for seniors living in our memory care communities to enjoy supervised “therapy” sessions in the kitchen. The scent of whatever is cooking or baking in the oven will stimulate their senses. In many cases, they’ll initiate or participate in conversations with others in the group, talking about happy experiences from decades past. It can be heartwarming to see!

Most of us enjoy sharing a meal with others as a way to socialize. For people of all ages, and especially for seniors, it can lessen feelings of isolation or loneliness.

  How Can We Help You?

If you’re considering Memory Care or Assisted Living, we invite you to check out Avenir Senior Living. You can find a community near you or contact us with any questions you may have.

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