Food For Thought

Food for Thought

Provided by: Dr. Kevin O’Neil, Medical Director for Brookdale senior Living
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Crossword puzzles, bridge, Sudoku., learning a new language-all are good for stimulating the brain and may actually reduce the risk for Alzheimer’s disease in later life. The old age is true-“Use it or lose it.” Regular physical activity is also recommended. However, how often do you think about what you eat and drink and how that may affect the health of your brain? If good eating and nutrition are important to you, recent research related to food and brain health will get you excited.

Yes, your mother was right. Fish is a “brain food.” Cold water fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, herring, and lake trout are rich in omega-3 fatty acids which is not only good for your heart and blood vessels but very good for the brain. However, fish is not the only source of omega-3 fatty acids. Nuts are a good source as well, especially walnuts and almonds. Many experts recommend the Mediterranean diet which is rich in fruits and vegetables, dietary fiber, vegetable oils such as olive oil, and red wine (in moderation!). A daily handful of nuts (unsalted if you have high blood pressure or other conditions for which salt restriction is advised) may confer additional benefits.

Brain cell injury can occur through oxidative stress which is part of the normal metabolic process. However, dietary antioxidants can antagonize this process. Some studies suggest a protective effect of antioxidants on cognitive decline. Foods rich in antioxidants include cranberries, blueberries, strawberries, red onions, pomegranates, prunes, broccoli, grapes, and others. Prospective randomized controlled studies have not been done that conclusively demonstrate that antioxidants will protect against dementia. No benefit has been demonstrated from antioxidants in pill form. Until more research is available, it seems prudent that we consume wholesome foods rich in antioxidants.

Fruit and vegetable juices are a good source for beneficial nutrients. A study conducted at the University of South Florida concluded that those who consumer fruit and/or vegetable juices more than three times a week were significantly less likely to develop dementia including Alzheimer’s disease than those who consumed such juices less than once per week.

What about vitamins? Most of us will get adequate amounts of vitamins in a well-balanced diet. Vitamin C and vitamin E are potent antioxidants. Foods rich in vitamin C and E include vegetables and fruits such as citrus. Folic acid found in dark green vegetable, chickpeas, pinto beans, and sunflower seeds is important as deficiency may be associated with dementia. Although a multivitamin is reasonable, megadoses of vitamins are not recommended unless prescribed for a known deficiency since excess doses can actually be harmful. However, many geriatricians are now recommending 800-1000 units of vitamin D to older adults based on studies showing not only benefits with regard to bone health but also a reduced incidence of falls, breast cancer, and perhaps cognitive decline. What we don’t know for sure is whether the low vitamin D levels observed in some individuals with dementia are a cause or a result, as some persons with dementia may have poor dietary intake of vitamin D. Further studies should help clarify the association.

Are you hooked on that morning cup of Java? That may well be a good thing. A recent study published in The Journal of Alzheimer’s disease studied over 1400 people ages 65-79 over an average of 21 years. The individuals who drank 3-5 cups of coffee in midlife had a 65% lower risk for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease later in life compared to those who drank little or no coffee. Research in animals has suggested a protective effect of caffeine on brain cells. Of course, everything we do should weigh benefits against risks. If your doctor has suggested you avoid caffeine due to heart rhythm disturbances, tremors, osteoporosis, or acid reflux disease, continue to follow that advice.

Although good nutrition is important, no less important to brain health is regular physical activity, social engagement, and good emotional health. Chronic stress and depression are now recognized as risk factors for stroke and dementia. So keep a positive attitude and good sense of humor. Stay connected with family and friends. Become a lifelong learner. Finally, start a regular physical activity program because something else we know to be true-“Move it or lose it!”

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