By Carlin Flora, published on February 12, 2004 - last reviewed on November 20, 2015
Crossword puzzles alone won't save your brain and protect it from aging, though they will help. So will the right foods. Some edibles are especially good at protecting the brain's delicate nerve cells and blood vessels from the damage that accompanies aging. Most of them squelch free radicals, the renegade oxygen molecules spun off as the brain goes about the business of the mind. Most of the foods that are smartest for the brain are also good for the heart because both rely on a steady oxygen supply. The risks for cardiovascular disease correlate with risks for cognitive decline.
Sweet wild blueberries are bursting with antioxidants, which mop up nasty free radicals. Studies of rats show that a blueberry-rich diet improves memory and motor skills and reverses age-related declines in balance and coordination. Chemicals in blueberries affect the contractile machinery of arteries, and therefore have a good affect on blood pressure. Elevated blood pressure can damage delicate blood vessels in the brain and can lead to strokes.
Chemicals called homocysteines are a normal part of protein metabolism, but high levels are linked with cognitive decline and Alzheimer's disease (as well as heart disease), which accounts for most cases of dementia in the U.S. According to Katherine Tucker, director of the dietary assessment research program at the Human Nutrition Research Center of Aging, "homocysteine has a toxic effect on arterial walls, and oxidation corrodes the arterial walls too, which makes them a bad combination." In order to break themselves down, homocysteines require folate and B12 or B6, vitamins found in vegetables like collard greens and swiss chard.
Fatty fish are full of neuroprotective omega-3 fatty acids. Higher levels of omega-3 in the blood go hand-in-hand with higher levels of serotonin, a mood-enhancing brain chemical. A study from the Rush Institute for Healthy Aging in Chicago found that people who eat at least one fish meal a week are significantly less likely to end up with Alzheimer's disease than those who regularly eschew fish. Because a fish diet aids communication between nerve cells, studies have shown its positive effect on learning acquisition and memory performance.
Research has finally caught up with mom's advice: Spinach turns out to be full of antioxidant power. James Joseph, chief of the Neurosciences Laboratory of the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, finds spinach beneficial in slowing down age-related problems in the central nervous system and cognitive deficits. A salad with spinach has more than three times the amount of folate than one with iceberg lettuce.
Drinking red wine in moderation increases longevity. But since alcohol slows down the brain's ability to function properly, grape juice may be a smarter beverage choice. Research from James Joseph shows that concord grape juice significantly improves short-term memory and motor skills. It's not just the heavy dose of antioxidants. Joseph believes that grape juice increases production of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Concord grape juice has the highest total antioxidant level of any fruit, vegetable or juice tested.
One of the best things you can do to improve intake of nutrients is to switch to brown rice. It's filled with vitamins and magnesium, which seems to be important to cognitive health. Whole grains contain vitamin B6, which aids in reducing homocysteine levels. Americans often don't get enough vitamin B6, because they mostly eat processed foods.
Warm up with hot cocoa to help your brain as well as your frostbitten fingers. Chang Young Lee, professor of food chemistry at Cornell University, found that the antioxidant content of two tablespoons of pure cocoa powder is "almost two times stronger than red wine, two to three times stronger than green tea and four to five times stronger than that of black tea." The antioxidants in hot cocoa protect brain cells from oxidative stress that can lead to Alzheimer's and other disorders.
Adding to their party-mix appeal, nuts are rich in antioxidants and have been found to lower blood cholesterol levels. A Harvard study showed that women who ate more than five ounces of nuts per week had a significantly lower risk of coronary heart disease than those who ate an ounce or less. And, they don't contribute to weight gain as much as other kinds of fatty foods. Walnuts are rich in omega-3s.
A staple of the highly touted "Mediterranean Diet," olive oil contains the potent antioxidants called polyphenols. Olive oil has been shown to reduce blood pressure and cholesterol levels. The extra-virgin variety is best.
This pungent herb fends off aging via its antioxidant properties. It also contains strong antibacterial and antiviral compounds that help shake off stress-induced colds and infections. Raw, crushed garlic is best; cooked garlic is less powerful but still benefits the cardiovascular system.