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Though some memory lapses are normal as you age (forgetting where you put the keys, a word at the tip of your tongue that you can’t retrieve), serious memory decline is not a given. You can keep your mind sharp and reduce the risk of serious memory impairments by concentrating on what you eat. Your diet, along with a few other lifestyle factors, can shape the way your brain functions and improve cognitive thinking skills, like your ability to learn something new, absorb important details, problem solve, complete complex tasks, and think critically.
It’s not necessary — or even a good idea — to wait for signs that your memory is slipping before you address your brain health. You can optimize your brain functioning by eating like your memory and thinking skills depend on it — because they do.
What type of benefits can I expect?
Research suggests that older people who adhere to a Mediterranean diet or a similar eating pattern that’s known as the MIND diet do much better on cognitive tests than those who follow less healthful dietary advice. The MIND diet is a mashup between the Mediterranean Diet and another healthy eating plan known as the DASH Diet, which was originally intended to help lower high blood pressure. It turns out, looking after your heart and vascular health is also good for your brain health, so the MIND diet combines principles from these two plans along with some specific advice to keep your brain sharp.
Beyond the memory impairments that may be typical of aging, studies also link these eating patterns to a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease, and what’s interesting is that even people who didn’t rigorously follow the MIND diet showed benefit. In the study, those who loosely followed the plan experienced a 35 percent lower risk of Alzheimer’s Disease (compared to a 53 percent reduction in risk among those who followed the diet more closely). Another study on the MIND diet suggested that compared with people who weren’t following its recommendations, those who followed the eating advice most closely had the cognitive skills of folks 7 ½ years younger, which is a pretty dramatic benefit.
Separate research has also linked healthy eating combined with other lifestyle measures to improvements in brain functioning. The study looked at people between 60 and 77 years old who were at risk for dementia and other forms of cognitive decline as indicated by the fact that they were already performing worse on these assessments than what would be expected for their age. The researchers found that after two years of following the lifestyle interventions, which included a healthy eating plan, physical activity, participation in intellectually stimulating brain exercises, and looking after their vascular health through blood work and other measures, those on the plan scored 25 percent higher on tests that assess mental functioning. Executive functioning scores improved even more; people in the lifestyle intervention group scored 83 percent higher, which translates to a better ability to organize information and stay focused on tasks — in other words, get stuff done! Processing speed also got a big boost — scores were 150 percent higher among the healthy lifestyle group. Processing speed relates to how quickly you receive and respond to information, so a faster processing speed could help you make decisions more quickly or it could make tasks like reading or taking notes easier on you.
What to eat for better brain health
To help you keep your brain sharp, load up on these foods, which are the pillars of the MIND diet.
Dark leafy greens
These wholesome greens provide important brain-protecting compounds, such as folate, phylloquinone and lutein. In one study that measured leafy green intake over an average of more than 4 ½ years among adults up to 99 years old, researchers found that just a bit over one serving of leafy green veggies per day helped preserve brainpower. The group that met this target had the memory and thinking skills of people 11 years younger! There are so many easy ways to fold these foods into meals. You can have a small side salad at dinner, toss some kale into a protein-packed smoothie, serve sautéed greens along with an egg scramble, and stir into pasta, soups, and stews.
In addition to leafy greens, the MIND diet (along with every healthful eating plan) emphasizes vegetables so try to have another type of veggie every single day. This doesn’t need to be complicated. Stack tomatoes and red pepper strips into sandwiches, have a stir fry with broccoli and cauliflower, incorporate fun veggie noodles (like zucchini or carrot noodles) into pasta dinners, or just serve up a snack with cherry tomatoes and hummus.