You know the saying:
You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
Is there some truth to the idea that, as we get older, we just aren’t able to learn new things?
We are finding that our brain’s ability to process information changes as we age. As human beings, what’s unique about us, especially when we compare ourselves to our close animal cousins, is that our brain space has lots of room to learn. Compare our brains to that of a house cat for example. (“Why a housecat?” you may ask. Well, one of my cats just happened to jump onto my lap as I was writing this.)
Not only is a house cat’s brain much smaller than ours, much of its brain space is occupied by instincts. This means that cats have a limit to what they are able to learn and process. Part of this is based on the size of their brain structures, but instinct also plays a major role. The same is true for many other animals.
We as human beings aren’t born with many instincts at all. This is why human babies require so much care and for such a long period of time. Domestic cats only need to be with their moms for about 6 weeks before they’re good to go. But, as humans, we need time to learn how to interact with our environment.
We know that when we’re young, our brains are very “plastic”– instead of being taken up by all of this instinctual knowledge, there’s lots of room to learn new things. But as we age, our brains aren’t as plastic. Don’t get me wrong, we can still learn new things, but things are kind of set in place.
We also know that for most of us, the neurons in our brains (which are responsible for learning, memory, processing information, etc.) start to shrink as we age. Some neurons may even die. If enough of them die, this may lead to dementia. If enough neurons die and the dementia is severe enough, the person may have Alzheimer’s disease.
Are there things we can do to keep some of the brain’s plasticity and prevent the death of the neurons in our brains?
How to Keep Your Brain Healthy
When we look at diet, there do appear to be some foods that may promote brain health–foods like walnuts and berries for example. Walnuts are a good source of a particular type of fat that the brain likes: omega-3 fats.
When we look at what our brain neurons are made mostly of and what helps them function their best, it comes down to fat. The brain has a high concentration of omega-3 fatty acids, so it’s possible that consuming enough of these fats throughout your life may help preserve brain function.
The added benefit to consuming foods high in omega-3 fats is that they tend to reduce inflammation in the body. Chronic systemic inflammation (meaning, the body is under stress for long periods of time) can damage the neurons in our brains. By consuming foods high in omega-3 fats, you’re supplying the brain with its favorite food and potentially reducing inflammation.
Any foods that are high in omega-3 fats can help promote brain health.
Some species of fish are great sources of these types of fats. Use the acronym SMASHT to help you remember those that are highest in omega-3s.
- S – Salmon
- M – Mackerel
- A – Anchovies
- S – Sardines
- H – Halibut
- T – Trout
Most nuts and seeds are also beneficial for brain health. This is because many nuts and seeds not only contain healthy fats like omega-3s, but they are also a great source of vitamin E, which may prevent cognitive decline.
What’s the deal with berries? Are they high in omega-3 fats? No. But they are loaded with inflammation extinguishing compounds called antioxidants. Berries reduce systemic inflammation which can preserve brain health. Many plant-based foods are full of antioxidants, which is why they may help preserve brain health.
Beans are another wonderful source of antioxidants. As a bonus, they’re a great source of fiber and protein.
It’s these antioxidants that are most critical. This is why you may also hear that tea and dark chocolate may help prevent dementia. Both are good sources of antioxidants.
Avocado and Coconut Oil
Avocado can help promote brain health because it keeps our heart and blood vessels healthy. If your brain gets enough blood flow (but not too much!), then it supplies your brain cells with enough nutrients (like omega-3s) and oxygen to keep them alive. The thing about coconut oil is that we’re not sure what to think (pun intended). Coconut oil’s nutrient profile is different from other plant-based foods, like avocado and its nut and seeds cousins. Coconut is higher in saturated fat. Even though this type of saturated is coming from a plant-based food (as opposed to red meat or butter, for example), there is still evidence that saturated fats in general can lead to more inflammation in the body. Plus they may narrow our blood vessels, which means the brain gets less blood, and as a result, less oxygen and fewer nutrients.
The Bottom Line
Yes, nutrition does seem to play an important role when it comes to brain health. If you consume foods that are good sources of healthy fats like omega-3s and consume lots of plant-based foods which are full of antioxidants, you may be able to protect your neurons and promote brain health. But foods high in trans fat and saturated fat may cause damage to the neurons in our brains. There are other lifestyle behaviors that we need to consider as well. Staying active – not only physically, but mentally and socially, are very important for preventing dementia and Alzheimer’s. Moving your body through exercise promotes the health of the neurons in the brain and also reduces inflammation in the body. Challenging your brain with puzzles and learning new skills can also strengthen neurons. Visiting with friends and family can help stave off disease as well. Researchers are finding that meditation may also promote brain health.
It’s important to note that none of the nutrients or foods I mentioned or the other lifestyle behaviors by themselves will prevent disease. It’s really about combining all of these and performing them consistently that seems to be most helpful.