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When I was in grade school, a popular put-down was calling someone a fat-head. Little did we know that fat-head was actually a good thing, since our brains consist primarily of fat and having a bigger (fatter) brain could mean having a smarter brain.
Fat is essential to brain structure and function, but when it comes to brain nutrition, the type of fat we ingest is just as important as the amount.
Good Fats, Bad Fats
To protect our brains, we need to minimize our intake of omega-6 fats—including margarine, fried foods, and processed foods—and instead choose the grilled wild salmon as an entrée and perhaps grab a handful of walnuts as a snack. These substitutions are rich in omega-3 fatty acids that protect both the brain and the heart. Numerous studies have shown that people who consume large amounts of these anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids have a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. The most abundant omega-3 fatty acid in the brain, docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, protects brain neurons against the damage related to amyloid plaques found in Alzheimer’s.
Proteins: Getting to the Meat of It
In a study of food combinations and Alzheimer’s risk, Columbia University researchers found that diets emphasizing proteins from fish and nuts in combination with generous portions of fruits and vegetables can lower the risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Fish is not only a great source of omega-3 fats, but it also provides healthy protein. Wild salmon, halibut, light tuna, cod, flounder, sole, sea bass, shrimp, lobster, scallops, and crab are all healthy choices. Keep in mind that farmed fish has more total fat and a higher proportion of omega-6 fat than fish caught in the wild. Also, eating too much fish can increase mercury levels in the blood.
What if you don’t like fish? White meat chicken and lean beef make healthy entrée choices, too.
Eat Brain-Friendly Carbohydrates
Compared with the rest of the body, our brain requires a considerable amount of energy. Whole-grain and high-fiber foods are brain-healthy and also help control weight, lower blood pressure, prevent strokes, and reduce the risk of diabetes. The body takes longer to digest whole grains and high-fiber foods than processed foods. Examples of whole grains include 100% whole-grain bread, brown rice, oatmeal, and even popcorn. Fresh fruits also contain brain-friendly carbohydrates and sugars.
Caffeine: A Cup A Day May Keep Dementia Away
Moderate drinking of caffeinated beverages is another way to protect your brain. A large-scale epidemiological study from Sweden reported that drinking up to three cups of coffee a day was associated with a 65 perfect lower rate of developing Alzheimer’s disease. A daily dose of coffee also lowers the risk for Parkinson’s disease and diabetes, two age-related conditions that increase the risk for dementia.
Short-term mental effects of caffeine can be both positive and negative. Caffeine makes us more alert, increases attention, and elevates mood. Studies of learning and recall demonstrate short-term improvements following coffee consumption. But too much caffeine can make us irritable and anxious and lead to insomnia, especially when we drink it in the evening.
I suggest that people try different brain games and try to exercise their brains with games they enjoy. Many of us prefer to vary our exercises since our brains enjoy variety—try a word puzzle like a crossword one day and a number puzzle like Sudoku the next. It’s also important to find brain games that are just challenging enough to be enjoyable—the goal is to train but not strain the brain.
Spice It Up
Spices and herbs add color and flavoring to our foods. They also have numerous health and brain benefits. For example, scientists studied piperine, the main active antioxidant ingredient in black pepper. After just two weeks, the piperine not only improved memory performance in experimental mice that carried an Alzheimer’s gene, but also delayed neurodegeneration in the hippocampus memory center of their brains.
Ground turmeric, used to make spices like curry and mustard, scores high on the ORAC scale (used to measure antioxidant potency). In part because of relatively lower rates of dementia in India compared with other countries, scientists wondered if eating curried foods might protect the brain from Alzheimer’s disease. In one study of more than 1,000 volunteers between the ages of 60 and 93, those who ate curried foods more frequently had higher scores on standard memory tests. Additionally, many experts believe that the oils used to cook the curried dishes help to shuttle the brain-protective ingredients into neurons.
Extra, Extra: Get Your Antioxidants
Eating antioxidant-rich foods may protect our brains from oxidative free radicals that cause wear and tear on the DNA in our cells. Colorful berries, such as strawberries, blackberries, and blueberries contain polyphenols that fight oxidants. Antioxidant foods containing polyphenols include grapes, pears, plums, and cherries, as well as the vegetables broccoli, cabbage, celery, onions, and parsley.
The Rotterdam Study from the Netherlands recently reported that higher dietary intake of the antioxidant vitamin E was associated with a lower risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease. In another large-scale European study of more than 8,000 volunteers age 65 and older, daily consumption of fruits and vegetables was associated with a decreased risk of all causes of dementia.
Low levels of antioxidants in the blood are associated with memory impairment, and laboratory animals fed antioxidant-rich berry extracts show better short-term memory (measured by how well they find their way through mazes). Other studies indicate that people who eat antioxidant fruits and vegetables have a lower risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease.
How Can Exercise Stave off Alzheimer’s?
Through routine cardiovascular conditioning, our hearts become more effective in pumping oxygen and nutrients to our neurons so they can function more effectively and remain healthy. Such exercise also stimulates production of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), a neurotransmitter that results in growth of neuronal branches (dendrites) that help our brain cells communicate more effectively. The best exercise for brain health is the one that can be done regularly. One study found that just 90 minutes of brisk walking each week lowers the risk for Alzheimer’s disease, so I recommend that people strive for at least 20 minutes of daily aerobic conditioning—walking, running, swimming, tennis, stairs, or whatever is convenient and fun.
Top Supplements for Brain Health
Sharpening your mental powers requires giving your brain what it needs to function optimally. Here are some of the most effective nutrients:
Acetyl-L-Carnitine: This amino acid provides the brain with much needed power by preserving mitochondria—tiny energy factories found deep within all cells, including brain cells. It also improves blood flow, protects against toxins, and helps transport fatty acids between the cells. Studies consistently show that acetyl-L-carnitine effectively treats mild cognitive impairment, and may even help those with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
Phosphatidylserine (PS): When we reach middle age, our levels of PS, a naturally occurring chemical related to brain function, begin to decline. Because PS is necessary for effective neurotransmission, deficiency is linked to mental impairment, including Alzheimer’s, dementia, depression, and Parkinson’s disease. Supplements are used to support memory and cognitive function, and have also been shown to improve learning, concentration, word recall, and mood by maintaining the structure and function of brain cells.
B Vitamins: These help guard against age-related memory loss. Vitamin B3 (niacin), for
example, fosters the growth of new blood vessels and neurons after a stroke. And vitamin B12 helps make and preserve myelin, the protective sheath that surrounds axons. B12 may also keep the brain from shrinking. Since this family of vitamins often works together, it’s best to take a B complex that provides at least 50 mg of the major Bs.
Bacopa: The saponins found in this herb are thought to repair damaged neurons in the brain. A study from the National College of Natural Medicine found that a relatively modest dose of bacopa taken daily for 12 weeks improved information recall.
Ginkgo biloba: This herb boosts blood flow in the brain, destroys free radicals, and protects brain cells from premature death. One review of 29 double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials found that the long-term use of ginkgo improves selective attention, some executive processes, and long-term verbal and non-verbal memory.
Magnesium: This mineral is essential for a healthy nervous system. Studies show that magnesium enhances the brain’s plasticity and increases the number of brain synapses that can be switched on. According to researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, magnesium improves both learning and memory. In fact, their study, which appeared in the journal Neuron, found that extra magnesium increased memory recall by an impressive 56 percent, thanks in part to a 142 percent growth in synaptic ends.
Citicoline: This building block of DNA is found in every cell in the body. The highest concentrations, however, are found in the brain and liver. In the brain, citicoline targets the frontal lobe—the area responsible for problem solving, attention, and concentration. It replenishes the phospholipids that create and maintain healthy brain cell membranes, and studies show that it protects the brain from free radical damage.
Cognizin: This is a propriety and highly absorbable form of citicoline specifically designed to support healthy brain function. You can find Cognizin as an ingredient in a few different supplements. The makers of Cognizin have also developed “Cognizin Memory”—a free iPhone app that exercises the brain with an entertaining, yet challenging mind game.
ORGANIC INDIA Memory combines organic bacopa and gotu kola—herbs renowned for improved mental clarity, focus, and recall.
GARDEN OF LIFE Oceans 3 Better Brain helps to enhance neurological function and brain health with a smart blend of high-potency omega-3s plus vinpocetine, bacopa and phosphatidylserine.
THE VITAMIN SHOPPE Phosphatidylserine Complex boasts Sharp-PS, a form of phosphatidylserine that most closely resembles the form found naturally in our brains.
WAKUNAGA Kyolic Neuro-Logic supports improved memory and mental acuity with three powerful brain boosters—phosphatidylserine, acetyl-L-carnitine, and ginkgo biloba.
NAWGAN PRODUCTS Nawgan Alertness Beverage with Cognizin citicoline, is “what to drink when you want to think.” Available in Lemonade (shown here), Kiwi Strawberry, Red Berries, and Orange flavors.
—Portions of this article have been excerpted with permission from The Alzheimer’s Prevention Program by Gary Small, MD.
Gary Small, MD, is the author of The Alzheimer’s Prevention Program: Keep Your Brain Healthy for the Rest of Your Life, as well as The New York Times bestseller The Memory Bible. He is director of the UCLA Longevity Center and professor of psychiatry at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine.