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
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.
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.
Not all foods are bad. Some foods actually protect the brain. Here are several to bring into your routine:
Nuts and seeds are rich in vitamin E, which has been shown to help prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Especially good sources are almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, pine nuts, pecans, pistachios, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, and flaxseed. Just one ounce – a small handful – each day is plenty.
Blueberries and grapes get their deep colors from anthocyanins, powerful antioxidants shown to improve learning and recall in studies at the University of Cincinnati.
Sweet potatoes are the dietary staple of Okinawans, the longest-lived people on Earth who are also known for maintaining mental clarity into old age. Sweet potatoes are extremely rich in beta-carotene, a powerful antioxidant.
Green leafy vegetables provide iron in a form that is more absorbable when the body needs more and less absorbable when you already have plenty, protecting you from iron overload, which may harm the brain. Green vegetables are also loaded with folate, an important brain-protecting B vitamin.
Beans and chickpeas have vitamin B6 and folate, as well as protein and calcium, with no saturated fat or trans fat.
Vitamin B12 is essential for healthy nerves and brain cells. Together, folate, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12 eliminate homocysteine, which can build up in the bloodstream – rather like factory waste – and damage the brain.
Vegetarian and especially vegan diets are especially powerful. A study at Loma Linda University showed that vegetarians not only live longer than meat-eaters; they stay free of memory problems longer, too.
Exercise Your Brain
For extra credit, it pays to “exercise” your brain. Here’s how:
Get Your Heart Pumping: A 40-minute brisk walk three times per week brings oxygen to your brain and can even reverse age-related brain shrinkage according to studies at the University of Illinois.
Mental Exercises: Brain stimulation – from books, newspapers or online brain-training exercises – measurably strengthens the brain.
Sleep. It’s essential for preserving memories. The first half of the night is important for slow-wave sleep, when your brain integrates facts and words learned during the day. The second half of the night emphasizes REM sleep, when emotions and physical skills are integrated. My advice is to go to sleep by 10:00 every night, and aim for eight hours of sleep – or as much as you can get.
Protecting Your Memory
Putting it all together, it pays to avoid the “bad fats” found in meats, dairy products, and snack pastries, and to take advantage of the powerful nutrients in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans. Vitamin B12 is an essential nutrient you’ll want to add to your shopping list. And don’t forget to lace up your sneakers and to give your brain a bit of mental exercise every day.
Don’t wait. Just as wrinkles start in early and life – gray hairs, too – the changes in our brains are already underway before most of us notice it. Now’s the time to take advantage of power foods for the brain.