Consider this scary statistic. A 2010 Alzheimer’s association study predicts that Latinos with Alzheimer’s and other dementias could increase by 600% to up to 1.3 million individuals by the year 2050. Sadly, Latinos are particularly vulnerable to dementia — even more so than non-Latinos — because we live longer and have a higher proportion of dietary risk factors associated with dementia, like diabetes and stroke.
Thus, it should come as no surprise that as a neurologist, one of the most commonly-asked questions I get on an almost daily basis is, “What foods can I eat or what special diet can I follow to help protect my brain from getting Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias?”
This is an important question. At this time, to be honest, prevention is the only real treatment for fighting or delaying dementias such as Alzheimer’s.
Just like diets are used to avert diabetes, cancer and heart disease, there are diets that can help the brain function better longer. The following eight food groups possess either nutrients that may help to prevent brain diseases, slow down brain aging, or improve memory and mood. These foods can serve as building blocks for a brain healthy diet:
1. Fruits. Various fruits are an excellent source of antioxidants. Antioxidants help protect the brain from damage that occurs with aging and poor diet. Fruits like mangos, berries (strawberries, blueberries, blackberries), pomegranates, and red grapes are loaded with a natural chemical known as polyphenol that has antioxidant properties.
2. Vegetables. Like fruits, vegetables are another essential aspect of any brain-boosting diet. Broccoli, spinach and other leafy greens, cabbage, sweet potatoes, and avocados — all of which are heavy in brain-friendly vitamins like B6, B12, E and folic acid — are particularly helpful as they protect the brain from damage that occurs with aging and inflammatory conditions that lead to dementia. Don’t forget raw garlic, which is loaded with antioxidants.
3. Grains. Complex carbohydrates in the form of whole grains are quite beneficial, as they’re loaded with vitamin E and with B12 in some cereals. Moreover, because they are more slowly digested by your body than other carbs, it leads to a slower rise in blood sugar decreasing the risk for diabetes, which is linked to Alzheimer’s. Therefore, loading up your plate — in moderation — with whole grain foods, such as brown rice, whole grain breads, such as rye, pumpernickel or 9-grain, and oatmeal is useful.
4. Nuts are a great source of protein, vitamin E and omega 3 fats which can help to protect the brain. Walnuts, almonds, and sesame seeds sprinkled over a salad or by themselves are valuable for important nutrients.
5. Good fats help the brain, specifically omega-3 fats which help protect from brain changes associated with dementia. Therefore, focusing on foods high in omega-3 such as wild Atlantic salmon, bluefin tuna, and anchovies can be beneficial especially if you eat them at least twice a week. Healthy monounsaturated fats like olive oil tend to fill you up more and help with weight loss.
6. Proteins are important especially for essential amino acids—the building blocks of proteins which help to improve mood and memory. Lean proteins such as white meat chicken, turkey, and all beans such as soybeans, peas, and lentils are high in essential amino acids.
7. Beverages. Coffee, up to 3-5 cups a day, has been known to be beneficial for helping preserve memory. However, the coffee has to be caffeinated and one has to balance this against the jittery feeling or disruption in sleep that many people often report. Tea and chocolate also contain caffeine but at a lesser rate than coffee. Red wine is another excellent source of polyphenols and a chemical known as resveratrol that may help to prolong aging.
8. Spices. Some spices are loaded with antioxidants and can be an easy way to improve diet without much effort. Oregano, cinnamon, curry, ginger, turmeric and black pepper are your best options.
Remember that at the end of the day, a healthy diet combined with weight control and exercise are the best things you can do to shield and protect your brain as you age.
Dr. Joseph Sirven is a first-generation Cuban-American. He is Professor and Chairman of the Department of Neurology and was past Director of Education for Mayo Clinic Arizona. He is editor-in-chief of epilepsy.com and has served U.S. and global governmental agencies including the Institute of Medicine, NASA, FAA, NIH and CDC.