10 Foods to Cut Your Risk for Alzheimer's Disease
By Alice Oglethorpe Medically Reviewed by Maureen Namkoong, RD
Brain-Healthy Foods Can Help You Stay Sharp
What you choose to pile onto your plate affects a lot more than just your stomach and energy levels — it can also have a huge impact on how well your brain functions, both today and in the future. “The brain’s neurons, or brain cells, can become rigid as you age, which means they don’t translate information very well to each other,” says Paul Nussbaum, PhD, clinical neuropsychologist and adjunct professor of neurological surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine's Brain Health Center . “One way to keep those brain cells communicating quickly and correctly, improving memory and lowering your risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease as you get older, is to add certain foods to your diet.” Ready to boost your brain power? Start incorporating some of these foods today.
A study on mice in a 2012 issue of the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease showed that extra virgin olive oil may improve learning and memory. “Olive oil is also the cornerstone of a heart-healthy diet, and good cardiovascular health is known to help brain health,” says Rebecca Katz, co-author of The Healthy Mind Cookbook . It’s also incredibly easy to add to your diet. Use it in salad dressing, sauté meats and vegetables in it, and even drizzle some on top of soup.
When it comes to foods that keep your brain sharp, the shining stars are foods containing omega-3 fatty acids . “Your body doesn’t create omega-3 fatty acids, so you have to consume them,” says Dr. Nussbaum. One of the most popular ways to do that is to eat wild salmon , although sardines and anchovies are also great sources of omega-3s. But don’t think you have to splurge on fresh fish from the seafood department — canned versions are just as healthy. “Gently flake canned sardines or salmon over a salad,” says Katz. “Add a squeeze of lemon on top, and you’re good to go.”
Dark fruits like blueberries and blackberries are loaded with antioxidants . Why is this important? “Antioxidants should be thought of as a broom that sweeps out dust from the garage,” says Nussbaum. “The dust particles in your body are known as free radicals, which can cause damage wherever they go, including in the brain. And just like omega-3 fatty acids, your body doesn’t create antioxidants, so you have to eat foods that have them.” Snack on fresh berries, use frozen ones in smoothies , or try Katz’s recommendation: Cook them down in a pot with a little water and a squeeze of lemon juice to make a compote perfect for spooning on top of yogurt.
A 2013 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that B vitamin supplementation in people with high homocysteine levels can slow the shrinking of the brain that's associated with Alzheimer’s disease — and these little legumes are packed with some of those vitamins. Plus, they couldn’t be easier to eat! Canned lentil soup is delicious (just make sure you choose a low-sodium variety). Katz also recommends boiling lentils for 20 minutes with a cinnamon stick, a few garlic cloves, and some oregano sprigs. Drain and use the lentils as a brain-boosting salad topper.
The nitrates in beets increase blood flow to the brain, which is directly linked to how well your brain operates, says Katz. These veggies also have folate (B9), which (as previously stated) may delay dementia as you age. You can roast them and put them on a salad with some goat cheese, but Katz recommends shredding raw beets and adding them to a cabbage and carrot slaw as a refreshing side dish.
There’s a reason this dark leafy green has such a good reputation: It's a nutritional powerhouse. Kale contains 45 different kinds of flavonoids, which have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that may clear the cobwebs out of your brain, says Katz. “Plus, it has lots of vitamin K, which boosts memory,” he adds. The moment you bring it home from the grocery store, clean it and rip the leaves off the tough-to-eat stem so that it’s ready to go. Katz recommends sautéing it up and adding it to a frittata, or using it in a salad instead of romaine. “It’s super hardy, so feel free to add your dressing to the salad in the morning — it won’t wilt,” she says. Blending kale into your smoothie is also a great way to add a boost of antioxidants to breakfast, plus it makes the green more palatable for picky eaters.
This cruciferous veggie is full of folate and the antioxidant vitamin C, both of which improve how well your brain functions. A research review in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease showed that eating a healthy amount of vitamin C can help protect your brain against cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s. And cauliflower is a versatile veggie: You can roast it or mash it as a delicious substitute for potatoes . It can also stand in for rice if you steam it and pulse it in a food processor.
“If you look at them, these nuts actually look like little brains, which is funny because they are a great brain food,” says Nussbaum. A study in the October 2014 issue of the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease showed that walnuts improve learning and memory in mice. Buy the nuts pre-roasted and unsalted, add them to salads or yogurt, or even snack on them straight. “If you don’t love the natural taste of walnuts, toss them with cinnamon and allspice, and toast them for eight minutes or so to give them a little more flavor,” says Katz.
“When you think about omega-3 fatty acids, most people think about fish, but pasture-raised lamb has a healthy share of them as well,” says Katz. “And it also has B vitamins to help prevent cognitive decline.” Lamb may sound intimidating to cook with, but buy it ground and use it instead of beef in sliders or meatballs . Just add some Middle Eastern spices like cumin, coriander, and cinnamon. “You don’t need a lot of meat,” says Katz. “Four ounces will go a long way toward boosting your brain health.”
Any list that includes antioxidant-rich foods also needs to include this beverage. Researchers from the University of Michigan have found that an element in green tea helps stop plaque growth in the brain that’s connected to Alzheimer’s disease. Drink it hot (a cinnamon stick and orange peel can boost the flavor) or make it iced and add a little papaya juice to sweeten it.
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