In a survey I saw some years ago, it indicated that “maintaining mental sharpness” was the #1 health issue for 65% of the people questioned. For many people, poor brain function equates to poor quality of life. There is no doubt that we live in a society that demands our brains work 100%—we constantly juggle facts, inputs, information, tasks, responsibilities, and process emotions. How could we really do without our brain at full tilt? And at the same time, the statistics are showing us increased rates of cognitive decline and dementia, along with mental health issues rising to be one of the biggest health issues in the 21st century.
With all that said, you’re probably scratching your head wondering what you can do to prevent the down-slide which starts in some people as young as age 40. Can you make your mind even sharper than it is if it is at maximum capacity? Probably not. But can you buffer your brain against mild decline and even more severe reduced function with dementia by taking some steps in what you eat and how you live? The research would suggest a resounding yes!
Here are five steps you can follow for better brain health through your decades:
- Eat like you live in the Mediterranean: Studies have shown that the more one can follow a Mediterranean way of eating (i.e., fish, fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, legumes, spices, extra virgin olive oil), the more our brains may be protected from decline and dementia, especially if we have type 2 diabetes, when the risk increases twofold. Since brain decline is linked to blood sugar balance, it’s important to consider a “modified” Mediterranean diet so you do not eat much of the high glycemic impact carbohydrates that can spike blood sugar. Put the focus on high-fiber legumes, non-gluten-containing whole grains, and nuts for sugar-stabilizing action.
- Go for blue: Some rather compelling animal studies suggest that blueberries are brain superstars. As one of the lead researchers at Tufts University was quoted, “Call the blueberry the brain berry.” In these studies, blueberry supplementation in the diet of rats for a number of weeks led to remarkably beneficial changes in learning and memory. It was fascinating that the blueberry supplementation seemed to play a role in resculpting the brain in such a way to make it more “plastic,” or flexible with respect to the communication between neurons. The researchers went as far as stating that blueberries may help to reverse brain aging. The human equivalent used in the study was calculated to be about one-half cup of blueberries per day. Of course, I always like to aim for the small, organically-grown, “stressed” blueberries that tend to be higher in phytonutrients than their plump, sugary counterparts.
- Spice it up with curry: If stranded on a desert island and had to survive, I would want my turmeric root, or even better, curcumin, which comes from turmeric, mostly because it’s such a powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compound. Researchers have theorized that the historically low rates of dementia in India is because of their use of curry. When it comes to the brain, not only can curcumin protect the brain cells, but it can also prevent the build-up of the protein, beta-amyloid, one of the hallmarks of dementia. You can try curry any which way you’d like—one of my favorites is to make a salmon curry (where you also get the benefits of the omega-3 fats in the salmon together with the curcumin in the curry!) or to include it into a smoothie, what I like to call a “turmeric milkshake,” with almonds, coconut milk, a couple of pitted dates, and a heaping tablespoon of the curry spice!
- Just move: That’s right—just move your body! Choose whatever form you like, and whatever you’re physically capable of based on your health condition(s). Whatever your movement of choice is, try to incorporate some aerobic activity—biking, yoga, walking, running, swimming, riding a stationary bike or a real one, are all great options. Take walks, even short ones, but make them regular throughout the week. The brain thrives on oxygen and needs it to perform well. By getting some aerobic exercise, you replenish the brain with the fuel it requires. Studies show that physical activity helps in improving the integrity of your brain matter and can help you retain information for a longer period of time compared to not exercising.
- Let go of shrinking stress: Stress shrinks certain parts of the brain. Therefore, it’s essential to choose a stress-modulation practice that you enjoy, whether yoga, meditation, or mindfulness. Studies show that yoga may have some benefits in promoting a healthy mood, and meditation sessions can do the same. In fact, one study showed that the more one meditates, the better one’s mood and the lower the amount of inflammation in the body—two thumbs up for the brain! Meditation can also help with promoting healthy blood flow to the brain, which means you’re delivering more oxygen and nutrients to the precious tissue. Mindfulness practice assists in fine-tuning one’s ability to pay attention and even leads to increases in brain gray matter density, which is a good thing if your brain is stressed and shrunk.
Keeping your gray matter bright with brilliance is definitely within reach no matter what your age! These five, simple lifestyle medicine steps will shine light on your path forward into the decades to come.