Best Foods to Prevent Memory Loss and Early Dementia
Throughout my nutrition studies and time in the industry, I’ve truly come to appreciate food’s remarkable ability to treat and heal different conditions. An area that is recently receiving a lot of attention is the role that certain foods and diets can play in the prevention of cognitive decline and the development of conditions like dementia and memory loss. I saw my father’s struggle with dementia, a condition I could never wish upon anyone, and I find some solace in the fact that someday in the future, people may be able to turn to healthy foods and balanced diets to relieve themselves of this degenerative disease.
To develop a deeper understanding of the role that food can play in cognitive decline and memory loss, it can be beneficial to look at the relationship from a scientific perspective. For reasons unknown to many, cognitive decline can simply be put down to genetics and in some cases is an inevitable part of simply being human - we carry so much in our brains throughout our lives, some things have to slip from time to time. But in cases of dementia, this progressive mental deterioration manifests in a loss of memory and cognitive function, and often an inability to carry our daily activities of life.
Dementia isn’t a singular condition like we are often led to believe, but rather a term used to describe a wide range of diseases that present with similar cognitive and psychological changes, such as Alzheimer’s disease. It makes it increasingly more difficult to understand how the cognitive decline takes place, as each disease has different physiological manifestations. But broadly speaking, dementia is caused by damage to or loss of nerve cells and their connections in the brain. Depending on the area of the brain that's affected by the damage, dementia can affect people differently and cause different symptoms, the most common being memory loss.
For example, Alzheimer’s disease is caused by damage to aspects of the brain structure and function and can be noted by recognizable lesions. Genetic factors do play a role in the disease, which can help in preventative care and lifestyle decisions early on. This genetic link makes up a large amount – up to 70% of cases. According to research, this is believed to be due to genetically linked alterations in the ability of the immune system to regulate inflammation in the brain. Other key influencing factors in potential Alzheimer’s development are lifestyle, dietary, and environmental factors that take decades to manifest in the body, eventually striking in old age. This is why it’s crucial to implement a healthy diet (and other lifestyle factors) as soon as you possibly can.
Because of much of the widespread and unknown nature of dementia, a singular diet hasn’t yet been established as a treatment protocol. Yet, many studies have indicated that those following a ‘Mediterranean diet’ might promote both brain and cardiovascular health, lowering the risk of developing dementia.
This diet is rich in high-quality fats proven to be associated with slower cognitive decline, such as the healthy consumption of fish to improve cognitive function due to higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids. If fresh, good quality fish is not readily available, it is suggested that fish-oil tablets or flaxseed and flaxseed oil is consumed in the diet. With the Mediterranean diet also comes a low to moderate consumption of red wine, but grapes and grape seed extract have been shown to be just as beneficial. The polyphenols present have been shown to prevent beta-amyloid formation and assist in disassembling neurofibrillary tangles – lesions that cause Alzheimer’s disease.
Alongside this delicious diet (although it’s not all pasta and Aperol spritz), there are some easy, simple additions you can add to your plate to aid in preventing cognitive decline through the decades. Here are my everyday favorites…
Avocados, in all their popularity, are also rich in antioxidants that suppress free radicals, can prevent neuron death, may help prevent neurodegenerative disease. The fruit also contains monounsaturated fatty acids and folate, which have both been shown to help prevent Alzheimer’s.
Researchers at the American Neurological Association have found that eating 2 servings of blueberries per week may delay cognitive decline by 2 ½ years. This is because the berries are high in flavonoids, especially anthocyanidins, which have been shown to improve cognition.
This crowd-favorite drink has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds that protect the brain from damage, which is believed to be mediated by caffeine and other mechanisms like antioxidant capacity and increased insulin sensitivity. One study showed 3-5 cups of coffee/day at midlife was associated with a 65% decreased Alzheimer’s risk.
4. Dark Chocolate
Cacao is a rich source of flavonoids that promote neuron and blood vessel growth in the
brain, stimulate brain blood flow, and is believed to improve recall and cognitive processing. So if there were ever a reason to keep snacking on your late-night square of Lindt 85%, this is it.
5. Green Tea
Green tea contains EGCG, a flavonoid that can bind to and prevent the formation of beta-amyloid proteins, helping to prevent Alzheimer’s. White, oolong, black, and peppermint tea have brain benefits, too, so boil the kettle and pour yourself a cup.
6. Herbs & Spices
We know that some of the most potent medicines are hidden in these flavorsome compounds. For example, turmeric reduces inflammation and increases blood flow to the brain and apigenin in parsley, thyme, oregano, and basil, can protect the brain from inflammation, oxidation, and plaque formation.
7. Leafy Greens
We all have been told to eat more greens at some point in our lives, but now you have good cause to. One study found that a daily serving of leafy green vegetables could slow cognitive aging by 11 years. So make sure kale, collard greens, spinach, and salad lettuces on your menu!
Lentils are a staple ingredient in many diets touted for longevity. All legumes are high in protein and fiber that may halt or significantly slow Alzheimer’s progression by preventing the formation of amyloid-β plaque. Get at least 3 weekly servings of beans or pluses for optimal brain health.
9. Nuts & Seeds
They make the perfect snack and as it turns out, they may save your life too. Nuts and seeds are anti-inflammatory and rich in sterols, stanols, fiber, minerals, and vitamin E, which protect
brain cells from oxidative damage and boost cognitive function.
10. Whole Grains
Diets rich in whole grains (high in fiber and vitamin E) are associated with a lower risk of cognitive
decline. And they don’t have to be glutenous or overly-processed - enjoy 3 servings/day of whole grains such as quinoa, amaranth, oatmeal, teff, and buckwheat for optimal health.
Protecting our brain health is one of the most important things we can to live a long, beautiful, and present life, and it still amazes me that it can be done with something as simple as a good diet. So take this opportunity to live like you’re in the Italian riviera and eat the Mediterranean diet your brain is craving!
If you are interested in reading more about my personal journey with my father's dementia, and what I believe to be the causes of his disease, I wrote an article to share his story, here.
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