If You Want Your Brain to Age Well, Check Your Plate

May 30, 2023

Ask any 10 people what they consider a healthy diet, and you’ll probably get 10 very different responses. Unless the 10 people you ask are nutritionists or dietitians, of course.

If you’re familiar with the general guidelines for good nutrition, then you probably know these basics:

  • Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables
  • Choose whole grains and lean proteins
  • Keep your intake of sugar, saturated fats and processed foods to a minimum

A Healthy Heart Most Likely Means a Healthy Brain, Too

Much of the existing wisdom on the link between diet and health is based on research into lifestyle changes that affect cardiovascular health. As more baby boomers reach retirement age, though, there’s been a greater focus on how diet affects brain health.

With aging being one of the primary risk factors for mild cognitive impairment, and the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia increasing more with each passing decade, older adults want to know what they can do to help preserve their mental function.

Fortunately, it turns out what’s good for your heart is also good for your brain. Why? Basically, because the heart pumps blood to every part of the body — including the brain — so, maintaining healthy blood vessels is one of the best strategies to protect both your heart and brain health.

Evidence Shows Good Nutrition Can Lower the Risk of Cognitive Decline and Dementia

If you’ve been adhering to a diet associated with positive cardiovascular effects, such as the Mediterranean diet or the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet, then you’re already on the right path to helping your brain age well.

Martha Clare Morris, a nutritional epidemiologist, and her colleagues developed a hybrid of the Mediterranean and DASH diets.

Their hybrid diet, called the Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) diet, lowered the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by up to 53% when followed rigorously and by approximately 35% when followed moderately well, according to study results.

Another study conducted in 40 countries evaluated the link between diet and the risk of cognitive decline in adults age 55 or older. Of note, those who participated in the study had a history of coronary, cerebral or peripheral artery disease or high-risk diabetes. During the 5-year follow-up period, participants who ate the healthiest diet (based on a modified Alternative Healthy Eating Index) had nearly a 25% lower risk of experiencing cognitive decline as compared with those who ate the least healthy diet.

Best Brain Foods for Seniors

Following a specific diet can require a concerted effort — and can be well worth it, as you can see. But if focusing on serving size and frequency is more than you want to tackle, it can be easier to remember which foods to include in your diet.

These are foods many nutrition experts recommend eating to benefit your brain (some fit into multiple categories):

  • Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, including fatty fish such as salmon, trout, mackerel, herring, anchovies and sardines, as well as chia seeds, ground flaxseed, flaxseed oil, algal oil and walnuts
  • Antioxidant- and phytonutrient-rich foods that fight inflammation, such as berries (particularly blueberries), cherries and other dark fruits, leafy green vegetables (kale and spinach rank high on the list), and cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower
  • Foods high in vitamin B12, such as eggs, salmon, fortified cereals (watch the sugar content) and dairy products (choose varieties low in saturated fat or fortified non-dairy alternatives); some vegetables (such as spinach, butternut squash and shiitake mushrooms) are fairly good sources of vitamin B12.
  • Healthy, protein-rich foods, such as nuts (especially walnuts), seeds (pumpkin seeds in particular), eggs, fatty fish and plant-based proteins such as tofu, lentils and tempeh
  • Foods high in vitamin D, including fatty fish, canned tuna and sardines, egg yolks, mushrooms that have been exposed to sunlight or ultraviolet light and vitamin D-fortified foods such as orange juice, milk and yogurt (choose unsweetened or low-sugar varieties)
  • Avocados, which are high in B vitamins and are a good source of monounsaturated fat, carotenoids and fiber
  • Green tea and matcha, both of which provide polyphenols (plant compounds with antioxidant properties) and an amino acid called L-theanine, which has been associated with cognitive improvements
  • Healthy foods high in choline, including eggs; shiitake mushrooms; soybeans, lentils and other legumes; certain fish, including salmon, cod and tilapia; sunflower and pumpkin seeds; chicken and turkey; cruciferous vegetables; and wheat germ
  • Turmeric, a spice commonly found in many Indian foods, because it contains curcumin, a polyphenol with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties; for best absorption, combine turmeric with black pepper
  • Probiotic foods, because they support gut health, and gut health is associated with brain health; many fermented foods either contain probiotics naturally or are fortified with probiotics — such as yogurt, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, miso, tempeh and kimchi
  • Flavonoid-rich dark chocolate, which improves blood flow to the brain and neutralizes free radical damage; as a bonus, the magnesium in dark chocolate reduces stress by suppressing cortisol, a stress hormone

Foods to Limit or Avoid

The list of foods that can be detrimental to your brain includes many of the usual suspects — and some that may surprise you.

  • Butter, margarine, partially hydrogenated oils, full-fat dairy and other foods high in saturated or trans fats
  • Soda and other sugary drinks, as well as those with artificial sweeteners
  • Fried, fatty and highly processed foods — many foods manage to check all three boxes; foods in these categories cause inflammation, which can damage blood vessels and slow blood flow to the brain (and throughout the body)
  • Refined carbohydrates, such as those in white bread, white rice and pasta made from refined flour; choose whole-grain alternatives instead
  • Red meat, because it’s high in saturated fat; healthier selections include certain varieties of fish, lean poultry and plant-based proteins
  • Bottled dressings, syrups and other foods that contain large amounts of high-fructose corn syrup; check labels and choose options without this sweetener, or make your own
  • Large fish like swordfish and ahi tuna, because they tend to contain high levels of mercury, a neurotoxin that may increase the risk of memory loss

If you aren’t ready to give up these foods entirely, you can still benefit by indulging only occasionally.

For example, a recent study suggests you could be increasing your risk for cognitive decline if ultra-processed foods account for more than 20% of your daily calorie intake. But that same study also suggests a diet that’s high in quality overall (meaning one that includes a lot of healthy foods such as those in the previous section above) can counteract some of the harm ultra-processed foods do to your health.

Our Focus on Fresh, Healthy Food

Here at The Variel, our director of culinary creations takes full advantage of the year-round availability of fresh, California-grown ingredients. Our menus feature healthy options, with entrée-specific nutrition information that makes it easy for residents to make smart dietary choices.

And while our menus have been carefully created with the nutritional requirements of older adults in mind, the food is delicious — as residents will be quick to tell you.

Our service staff also has real-time access to nutrition-related notes for residents with dietary restrictions. This allows staff members to advise residents when they place an order in any of our dining venues if an item contains something they need to be aware of, like an allergen, for instance.

All of this makes healthy dining at The Variel easy and completely enjoyable.

Come Sample Our Healthy Lifestyle!

Dining is only one facet of the overall healthy lifestyle awaiting you at The Variel. There are many more, including our Zenergy fitness center and wellness program, our beautiful indoor pool and a profusion of social activities that keep our community connected.

We invite you to contact us and set up a one-on-one personal visit. While you’re here, you can experience our community firsthand and learn more about the services and amenities we offer.

As a final note on how to keep your brain at its best, we encourage you to stay hydrated. The brain is 75% water, so even slight dehydration can have an impact. Drinking plenty of water and other hydrating liquids increases the flow of blood to your brain, ensuring it gets the oxygen and nutrients it needs — so play it smart and drink up!