Your Brain-Protection Plan

By Neal D. Barnard, MD Adjunct Associate Professor of Medicine at the George Washington University School of Medicine President of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington, DC Author of Power Foods for the Brain

Posted on | By Neal D. Barnard, MD

Memory lapses are common at any age. You can’t find your keys, you forget a name, or you walk into a room only to realize you can’t remember why you’re there. For many people, the problem is simply a lack of sleep or temporary stress. But sometimes lapses become more frequent and more worrisome. Alzheimer’s disease affects nearly half of Americans by age 85.

The good news is recent research has shown that that foods can help prevent Alzheimer’s disease and may even reverse memory problems if they are caught early.

When scientists examine the brains of people who have had Alzheimer’s disease, they find that between the brain cells are tiny specks, called beta-amyloid plaques. Under the microscope, they look like little meatballs or balls of yarn. Scientists believe that these plaques gradually destroy brain cells.

Why do they occur? Researchers in the US and Europe have found that the answer may be found in our eating habits. Some foods make Alzheimer’s disease more likely; others help prevent it.

“Bad Fats”

In the not-so-healthy category are saturated fats – the fats in meats and especially in dairy products, such as cheese and ice cream. Researchers with the Chicago Health and Aging Project found that people eating reasonably large amounts of these “bad fats” had more than three times the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, compared with people who tended to avoid them. And here is the scary part: If you had just two eggs and a strip of bacon for breakfast, a skinless chicken breast with a glass of milk for lunch, and a small cheese pizza for dinner, you would get enough “bad fat” to be in the high-risk group. That’s right. Everyday foods that many people include in their routines put us at risk. Trans fats, found in doughnuts and other snack foods, also increase the likelihood of memory problems in later life.

Iron, Copper and Other Metals

Metals – iron and copper – that can come from foods and even from our pots and pans can be part of the problem, too. Of course, you need iron for red blood cells and copper for normal enzyme function. But in larger amounts, these metals produce free radicals that damage brain cells.

Where do these metals come from? Iron is in meats and, of course, in cast-iron pans. Stainless steel is a safer choice. Copper is found in copper pipes – so it pays to install a water filter – as well as in liver and many other foods. Both iron and copper are often added to multivitamins, so I believe it is a good idea to read the labels on vitamins you buy and select those that omit these metals.

Aluminum has been found in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients, too. While scientists continue to debate whether it is a culprit or simply an innocent bystander, it pays to err on the side of caution. Avoid uncoated aluminum cookware and read labels when buying baking powder, antacids, and processed foods.

Article written by Neal D. Barnard, MD
Adjunct Associate Professor of Medicine at the George Washington University School of MedicinePresident of the Physicians...