My mother is a Sodoku addict. Truly. On every airplane ride, she burrows into those little books with a determination that even major turbulence can’t seem to touch. At home I find books with cute titles like “Soduku Magic!” strewn around various rooms of their house. One of the reasons she relishes in her fixation? She wants to keep her brain “active and healthy” as she ages.
Brain teasers, mind games and social stimulus have long been linked to keeping the mind crisp. And, increasingly, research suggests that lifestyle also plays a role; consuming too many calories and getting low quality sleep, for example, have been linked to faster cognitive decline. But a new study (Neurology 2012; 78:658-664) suggests there’s a key nutrient involved in preserving both the structural and cognitive aging of the brain: DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid found primarily in fish.
Researchers looked at over 1500 aged adults who were in late middle age and without dementia. Their goal was to explore how the levels of DHA in their blood (specifically, their red blood cells) may be related to signs of future dementia.
The results were startling: Those with the highest levels of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) in their blood had a 37% lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease, and a 47% lower risk of dementia, even when other risk factors were adjusted for. Adults with the lowest amount of DHA in their blood had smaller brain volumes, poorer performance in tests of visual memory, abstract thinking, planning, organization, and carrying out of tasks than adults with higher DHA levels. So much so, in fact, that the authors estimated that the smaller brain volume from low omega-3 levels sped up brain aging in their subjects by about 2 years.
Another Reason to Focus on Fish
The brain loves DHA, but the typical American diet is heavy in processed foods lacking this vital omega-3 fatty acid; this imbalance in our diet creates fundamental shifts in the body’s inflammation, circulation and cognitive pathways. I have done several segments with Dr. Oz where I encourage viewers to include more omega-3 rich fish on their shopping lists. Still, as I travel the country, it’s probably the number-one “I know I should eat it but I don’t like it” food I am asked about.
What’s holding you back? Commit to this new food habit for a month, and I promise it will soon seem like second nature to have fish on the menu. To reap all the many heart and mind benefits, try to include omega-3 rich fish in your diet twice a week. Even if you are not a “fish” person, perhaps there are easy options you may not have thought of, which I’ve listed below. And if you happen to be fond of Sodoku, who knows, it just might give you an edge.
6 Fish to Try Now
If the fish counter seems too pricey, check the freezer part of the fish aisle. Frozen filets are usually significantly cheaper, and then you don’t have to worry about wasting any (and you can stock up when they are on sale). Another less expensive alternative is canned salmon, delicious in sandwiches, or on toasted pita or crackers.
Canned chunk light tuna packed in water is one of the best bargains in the supermarket. Top your salad with tuna at lunch for a protein and DHA boost, or blend tuna with avocado for a creamy, nutrient-rich sandwich filling without the saturated fat of mayonnaise.
Sardines, Mackerel and Anchovies
Canned or fresh, these are lean and green superfoods rich in vitamin D, selenium and DHA. Mash 2 sardines or anchovies into your favorite southern Italian tomato sauce recipe – and voilà, a deliciously deep “umami” flavor without the fishiness. I can honestly say that canned sardines have come a long way in taste and texture; some even come in lemon and oil, or tomato sauce – delicious with whole grain crackers for a super snack! And many have pop lids to make on-the-go nutrition easy.
This is a great alternative for people who don’t like fish, as it’s a deliciously mild but meaty white fish. A type of seabass, barramundi has almost as much omega-3 as wild salmon. Look for it as frozen fillets, in microwaveable frozen pouches (super convenient), or on your favorite seafood restaurant menu.