Can Changes in Diet Enhance Mental Function or Slow Mental Decline?

1 answer | Last updated: Oct 29, 2016
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Can changes in diet enhance mental function or slow mental decline?


Expert Answers

Beth Reardon, M.S., R.D., L.D.N., is Caring.com senior food and nutrition editor and the director of integrative nutrition at Duke Integrative Medicine. As a practitioner of integrative nutrition, Reardon takes a holistic approach to wellness, recognizing that the foundation for optimal health and healing begins with a health-promoting diet. As a practitioner of integrative nutrition, Reardon takes a holistic approach to wellness, recognizing that the foundation for optimal health and healing begins with a health-promoting diet.

Yes, they can. It's important to realize that when we talk about brain health, we're also talking about cardiovascular health. If you have a healthy heart, that's an indication that your overall vascular health is good, including the arteries and veins that supply blood to the brain. Similarly, the benefits of a heart-healthy diet, one that's high in vegetables and fruits, extend to the health of the brain as well.

Specifically, two things seem to cause cognitive decline:

  • Oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is the end result of damage to our cells' membranes and DNA that's caused by "free radicals," or unstable molecules that disrupt the cells. Free radicals form as a result of our body's normal, oxygen-related metabolic processes (breathing and digestion, for example). But free radicals are also formed as a result of harmful by-products found in our diet and environment.

  • Inflammation. Inflammation is part of our body's normal immune response -- the process by which the body's white blood cells and chemicals protect us from damage or insults from any source (bacteria, viruses, physical injury, and so on). But when it's our own biochemical environment that's causing the damage, as with oxidative stress, the inflammation continues unchecked -- as does the resulting damage.

A brain-healthy diet is one that helps decrease both oxidative stress and inflammation: a diet that's limited in dairy and red meat while being generous in healthy fats, vegetables, fruits, and legumes.

Studies in mice are showing that particular foods may have amazing neurocognitive benefits, lowering the rate of formation of beta amyloid, which is a main component of the plaques in the brain that contribute to the neuronal damage that we see as dementia. These foods do this because they reduce oxidative stress and lower inflammation and can, in some cases, profoundly influence cell structure, including membrane fluidity and cell-to-cell communication.

These foods (in whole form, not as supplements) include:

  • Blueberries. Add a handful (one half to three-quarters cup) to your cereal most days of the week, eat as a snack, or put them on a salad at lunch or dinner. Blueberries are especially good because they contain a plant compound that can cross the blood-brain barrier.

  • Strawberries. Enjoy a handful with your morning oatmeal or serve with Greek yogurt as an afternoon snack.

  • Spinach. Sauté with a little garlic and add to your eggs in the morning, or use with the blueberries to make a gorgeous salad.

  • Pomegranate juice. Just three to four ounces a day confers benefits. Try it in a smoothie or with sparkling water.

  • Cold-water fish. Sockeye salmon, sardines, herring, and mackerel are among good sources of omega 3s. Eat for lunch or dinner several days of the week in place of animal protein.

  • Green tea. Aim to sip two to four cups a day.

  • Heart-healthy spices. Good choices include turmeric, ginger, and cinnamon.

  • A vitamin supplement including B12. As we age, our bodies produce less hydrochloric acid, which is required to absorb B12. B vitamins are best taken together, so look for a B50 complex at your drug store and be sure to ask to have your B12 levels checked annually.