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 data from studies, we find that there are common foods that appear to support brain health.
A Mediterranean-type diet is what we’re learning may help support brain functions the most.
Part of the reason for this is that there are simply more studies examining these types of meal plans. So it's possible that other types of diets may help, too, but we just haven’t studied them yet. For now, though, it seems the consensus is that a diet rich in plant-based foods and omega-3 fatty acids, in particular, may be most helpful.
Basically, a meal plan supporting brain health would look like this:
- Consume mostly whole grains pretty much every day.
- Get your 5 to 9 servings of fruits and vegetables daily – especially those that are dark green, orange, and red.
- Eat red meat sparingly, and instead consume lean meats like poultry and fish, especially, twice a week.
- Include legumes, nuts and seeds into your daily meals and snacks.
- Use olive oil over other oils.
Ok, so why these foods, specifically? I’m so glad you asked…
I'll start by discussing omega-3 fatty acids.
Omega-3 Fats & Brain Health
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
Tuna is a decent source as well, but it doesn't contain as many omega-3 fats as the above.
Consuming these types of fish 2 to 3 times per week has been linked to a lower risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Some studies also found that omega-3 fats improve brain function and development.
Not a Fish Fan?
Consider an omega-3 supplement (talk to your doctor first).
You may have also heard that there are some plant-based sources of omega-3 fats. That’s correct, but here’s where it gets a little more complicated and potentially confusing.
There are different sub-types of omega-3 fats. Some types are more common in plants, and others are commonly found in marine plants and animals.
For example, you may have heard that walnuts are good sources of omega-3 fats. This is correct! Walnuts contain alpha linolenic acid (ALA), a specific type of omega-3 fatty acid. However, fatty fish like salmon, contain different types of omega-3 fats: Eicosapentaenoic acid (abbreviated EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
Plant sources of omega-3 fats don’t have these specific sub-types–or if they do, the amount is minimal. DHA is the most abundant type of omega-3 fatty acid found in the brain and is important in maintaining nerve cell structure and function. It’s important we get enough of this type of omega-3 specifically.
That’s not to say walnuts are bad or won’t help improve brain health. This is because walnuts contain other neuroprotective nutrients such as antioxidants, vitamin E, carotenoids, and a variety of minerals.
You may also have heard chia seeds are a good source of omega-3s. That’s also true, but again, chia doesn’t come from the ocean and therefore is not a great source of EPA or DHA.
Let’s move on from omega-3 fats for now. There are other important foods and nutrients to consider.
What’s the deal with berries? Are they high in omega-3 fats? No. But they are loaded with inflammation extinguishing compounds called antioxidants. This is partly why they are so beautifully colored. These antioxidants provide some of that vibrant pigment.
The specific antioxidants found in berries have been shown to improve memory. A large study found that two or more servings of strawberries and blueberries each week can delay memory decline by up to 2.5 years.
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 dark chocolate may help prevent dementia. It's a good source of antioxidants.
Consuming cinnamon has been linked to improved memory, increased attention, and enhanced cognitive processing. I’ll spare you from quoting Jerry Seinfeld and his take on cinnamon here, but I have mentioned in a previous Q&A episode that you want to use Ceylon cinnamon specifically. Nutmeg and ginger may also help slow cognitive decline.
Tea and Coffee
If you’re unsure whether consuming caffeine is right for you, be sure to check with your doctor. However, remember that too much caffeine can lead to some unwanted side effects.
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.
Brain Health Supplements
I mentioned that omega-3 supplements, specifically those containing EPA and DHA, might be worth exploring with your doctor, especially if you don’t eat fish regularly. No need to buy the “megadose” versions of these.
Also, some brands add vitamin E to help prevent the fats from going rancid. This may not be necessary, but it may be helpful to purchase “enteric-coated” omega-3 supplements. This may prevent that “fishy burp” side effect.
There other dietary supplements on the market, often marketed as supporting brain health and mood or memory enhancers. Ignore those claims for now. When those supplements are studied, the researchers often find they don’t appear to help in reality.
Lately, I’ve been seeing television ads for Prevagen. The ads claim that Prevagen improves memory specifically. However, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the New York State Attorney General sued the manufacturers for these misleading ads because the research simply did not support these claims. Save your money on these.
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.
Consume mostly whole grains pretty much every day. Get your 5 to 9 servings of fruits and vegetables daily – especially those that are dark green, orange, and red. Eat red meat sparingly, and instead consume lean meats like poultry and fish, especially, twice a week. Include legumes, nuts and seeds into your daily meals and snacks. Use olive oil over other oils. Add spices like cinnamon and nutmeg to your foods when you can. If you don’t consume fish or other marine food sources, talk to your doctor about getting an omega-3 supplement. If you enjoy coffee and tea, they may also help.
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.