By Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD
What our bodies can do at age 50 may not be the same as what they could do at 20. The brain is no exception, but we still have some good news: research suggests that just as regular exercise maintains fitness with age, eating the right foods may protect the aging brain.
Eat well, think better
To study nutrition and brain health, researchers performed a long-term study over a 13-year period. They first collected diet and thinking (cognitive) function information from 2,135 adults who were 45 to 60 years old. The cognitive function tests included assessment of:
• Verbal skill, as measured by the ability to name as many animals and cite as many words as possible beginning with the letter P, within a two minute period of time
• Mental flexibility, measured by the ability to connect patterns of numbers and letters
• Memory, as measured by number memorization tasks and list-learning
The assessment of eating habits considered how closely the study subjects followed healthy eating guidelines, which included:
• Having five or more servings of vegetables and fruit daily
• Choosing whole grain foods instead of refined (white flour) grains
• Eating moderate serving sizes to maintain a healthy body weight
• Consuming alcohol in moderation or not at all
• Eating three servings of dairy per day
• Eating no more than one to two servings of meat, poultry, and eggs per day
• Eating at least two servings of seafood per week
• Drinking at least four cups of water per day
• Limiting soda, sweets, salt, and added fats
Thirteen years later, the study subjects completed another cognitive function test. The researchers discovered that the more closely a person followed the healthy eating guidelines, the more likely he or she was to maintain good verbal memory and skill. The healthy eaters also maintained better executive function, which is the ability to organize thoughts and activities, prioritize tasks, manage time, and make decisions.
While this study does not prove cause and effect, it suggests that choosing the right foods may nurture our noggins as we age. Put brain-healthy eating front and center in your life with the following tips.
• Master moderation. Avoid overeating and maintain a healthy body weight for a healthy brain and body:
• Vary vegetables and fruit. Aim for five or more servings of a variety of vegetables and fruit each day to ensure you get plenty of brain-healthy nutrients, and to keep your taste buds from getting bored.
• Harness whole grains. Read labels and avoid products with enriched flour – a tip-off the product is not whole grain.
• Fix fish. Enjoy at least two servings of fish or seafood each week to ensure a steady intake of brain-healthy omega-3 fats.
• Nix sugary drinks. Replace soda and sugary fruit drinks with tea, sparkling water, or just a simple glass of water.
• Delight in dessert. Make sweets a once or twice a week treat. You’ll enjoy it more when you don’t have it every day, and your brain – and waistline – will thank you.
(Am J Clin Nutr 2010; published online ahead of print)
Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD, an author, speaker, and internationally recognized expert in chronic disease prevention, epidemiology, and nutrition, has taught medical, nursing, public health, and alternative medicine coursework. She has delivered over 150 invited lectures to health professionals and consumers and is the creator of a nutrition website acclaimed by the New York Times and Time magazine. Suzanne received her training in epidemiology and nutrition at the University of Michigan, School of Public Health at Ann Arbor.
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