Feed Your Head: Brain-saving foods

Feeling a little foggy? It may be a normal part of getting older, or it may be something more serious. It’s typical in aging to lose some mental sharpness. With aging, the brain cells begin to deteriorate, and essential fuels aren’t delivered as efficiently. But Alzheimer’s disease isn’t an inconvenient aspect of getting older; it’s an incurable, degenerative, and ultimately fatal disease

Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia; it’s characterized by a buildup of amyloid protein plaques in the brain, tangled bundles of nerve fibers, and the loss of connections between nerve cells in the brain. Symptoms usually appear around the age of 60, and the disease is usually diagnosed in people over the age of 6 5, but it can occur earlier.

And it’s an enormous and troubling problem; current estimates show that as many as 5.1 million Americans may have Alzheimer’s.

The exact cause is unknown, but contributing factors include genetics, lifestyle factors and diet. And while there’s no known cure for Alzheimer’s, you can prevent it—especially if you start early enough.

“Childhood isn’t too soon to start protecting your brain,” says Daniel Amen, M.D., author of Change Your Brain, Change Your Body (Harmony Books, 2010). “And changing habits in adulthood can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s, and may prevent it entirely.”

Start saving your brain today, with these smart steps.

Be a vegan. Saturated fat appears to increase the risk for Alzheimer’s, possibly by compromising blood-brain barrier and allowing harmful substances to enter the brain.1In one study, people who ate smaller amounts of high-fat dairy products, red meat, organ meat and butter had less chance of developing the disease.

Get moving. Study after study points to physical exercise as the most effective way to prevent Alzheimer’s. Doing exercise that increases heart rate for at least 30 minutes, several times a week, appears to inhibit Alzheimer’s-like brain changes, slowing the development of amyloid plaques in the brain, a key feature of the disease.2 Ways to move: ride a bike, go swimming, try skiing, take a brisk walk, play tennis—anything you enjoy that you do consistently, day after day.

Swap sardines for tuna. Both are high in omega-3 fats (like salmon), but sardines are smaller and thus less likely to be contaminated with brain-draining heavy metals that accumulate in the tissues of larger fish. And a recent study found no effect of omega-3 supplements on Alzheimer’s risk, many other studies have shown that people who eat more dietary omega-3 fats have a lower risk.3, 4 Buy the boneless, skinless variety packed in water, and use them like tuna: on top of salads, tossed with cooked pasta, or used in a sans tuna salad wrap (see recipe).

Eat like a bird. Many studies suggest that eating less food decreases overall inflammation in the body.5Other studies have found that restricting calories, especially carbohydrates, may prevent Alzheimer’s by triggering activity in the brain associated with longevity. (But high-fat, high-protein diets won’t work; the study also found that a high caloric intake based on saturated fat would increase risk.)

Mix it up. Because foods aren’t eaten in isolation, one study examined the results of a specific set of dietary patterns.6 It seems that eating a varied diet made up of dark green vegetables, tomatoes, crucifers, nuts, fish, poultry and fruit is the most protective.

Check your B vitamins. In one study, people with elevated levels of homocysteine—an amino acid that’s linked to increased risk of heart disease—had nearly double the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.7 The body naturally takes care of excess homocysteine if it has enough folate and B12 vitamins; if you have a family history of Alzheimer’s or other risk factors, consider taking a supplement of folate and B12 to keep homocysteine levels in check. Other supplements that show promise: ginkgo biloba,8 vinpocetine, huperazine A, acetyl-l-carnitine and alpha lipoic acid, says Amen.

Get your five-a-day. Or more: much research shows that free radical damage may lead to Alzheimer’s disease, and antioxidants from fruits and vegetables are one of the best ways to prevent that damage. Start early: a lifelong consumption of fruits and vegetables offers the best protection, says one study.9

Sharpen the saw. “Being bored is not only, well, boring, it is also potentially harmful to the long-term well-being of your brain,” says Amen. “In several new scientific studies, people who do not engage in regular learning activities throughout their lives have a higher incidence of Alzheimer’s disease.” Flex your mental muscles with new experiences: travel to a foreign country, drive a different route to work, learn to play chess, take up a new sport. Or learn to dance: you’ll get exercise, and memorizing moves will stimulate your brain.

Sober up. Alcohol may increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, and drugs like marijuana, cocaine, prescription pain killers and benzodiazepines, diminish brain function and damage neurons, says Amen. “Educate kids early about the dangers of drugs and alcohol,” he says. “Adults should avoid recreational drugs, take prescription medications with caution, and limit alcohol consumption to no more than one to two normal-size drinks a week.”

Protect your head. Brain injuries—even those not resulting in concussion—can damage the brain and lead to Alzheimer’s. Helmets only offer partial protection, says Amen. “If your head hits the ground or a hard surface, it shakes the brain inside the skull, with our without a helmet,” he says. “Inside the skull are a whole lot of sharp, boney ridges—and a helmet can’t protect your brain from those.”

Catch some rays. Decreased levels of vitamin D can increase Alzheimer’s risk. The best way to increase levels is exposure to the sun, but wearing sunscreen blocks inhibits the skin’s production of vitamin D. The American Medical Association recommends 10 minutes of direct sun exposure, without sunscreen, several times a week. If you’re fearful of burning, or if you live in a Northern climate with little sunshine, consider a supplement (especially during winter months); the current recommendation is 400 IU a day, but most experts agree that’s too low, and that as much as 2000 IU a day is more appropriate. Get your vitamin D levels checked, and ask your health care provider to recommend the best amount for you.

Rethink your cookware. Though no study definitively links aluminum cookware to Alzheimer’s, many studies confirm that aluminum concentrations in the brain are linked to increased risk of the disease.10 “Aluminum is toxic to brain function and one would assume less is better,” says Amen. If you’re at risk, consider switching to stainless steel cookware, and avoiding other sources of aluminum, such as tap water and aluminum-containing drugs.


10 Warning Signs of Alzheimer’s

Simple forgetfulness or the beginnings of dementia? If any of these signs sound familiar, it may be time to seek medical care:

1. Memory loss–forgetting important dates or events, or asking for the same information over and over–that interferes with daily life.

2. Difficulty in solving problems, developing and following a plan, or working with numbers; for example, following a recipe, or keeping track of bills.

3. Challenges in completing familiar daily tasks, like driving to a familiar location, or remembering the rules of a favorite game.

4. Becoming confused about times or locations, like losing track of dates or seasons, having trouble understanding something that’s not happening immediately, or forgetting where they are and/or how they got there.

5. Difficulty understanding visual problems and spatial relationships, like judging distance, determining color or contrast, or passing a mirror in a room and thinking there’s someone else there.

6. Having trouble with words, either in speaking or writing, such as difficulty following a conversation, repeating themselves, struggling with vocabulary, calling things by the wrong name, or having problems finding the right word.

7. Misplacing things, difficulty in retracing steps, or putting things in unusual places.

8. Poor judgment, or decreased capacity for decision making–for example, giving large amounts of money to telemarketers, or poor self-care or grooming.

9. Withdrawing from work or decreased involvement in social activities or hobbies, sometimes because of difficulties remembering how to complete hobbies or tasks.

10. Personality changes, or changes in mood; for example, becoming anxious, fearful, confused or depressed, or becoming easily upset.