Feed your head : Protecting our aging brains with diet

Sponsored by Harvard Pilgrim Health Care’s Eastern Harmony program Grace Slick said it and she had it right.

Neuroscientists now believe we can significantly boost our chances of maintaining a healthy brain well into old age.

Just ask Gary Wenk, professor of psychology, neuroscience and medical genetics at Ohio State University. Dr. Wenk wrote the book, “Your Brain on Food,” and is at the forefront of growing evidence showing that dementia can be deterred or even prevented by eating the right foods and living well.

Like drugs, food is made up of chemicals. As with medicine, everything we eat has an effect — good or bad — on the brain as well as the body. Certain foods can minimize damage to neurons and preserve a healthy mind as you age.

Better biology

Now, we could go into a long explanation of the chemicals and elements at work here, the sort of lecture that put you to sleep in high school biology class.

But all you really need to know is that some of the molecules left behind after we metabolize what we eat — and even just breathe — can be harmful. You may have even heard of them, “free radicals.” You may even wonder who let them loose.

It doesn’t matter. If we take care of our bodies, they can usually do a good job of protecting our cells from these invaders.

Still, aging and simple daily living can weaken our natural defenses against free radicals. So our cells, including neurons, may become more vulnerable as we get older.

Neurons are the nerve cells that receive and send electrical signals all over your body. Brain neurons signal the muscle neurons, or motor neurons, when you want to reach the box of cereal on the top shelf.


Enter the antioxidant

Antioxidants are molecules found in colorful fruits and vegetables. In plant cells, antioxidants are processed as protective shields against bacteria, viruses and other environmental stresses. In humans, these amazing molecules can help slow the aging process. They protect cells from the general wear and tear of simply living.

Blueberries, broccoli, grapes, prunes, strawberries, spinach, artichokes, apples — all contain large amounts of antioxidants, as do herbs and spices like rosemary, turmeric, thyme, chili peppers and oregano.

Antioxidant-rich foods are a great defense against dementia. But you’ll need variety. Each has unique powers in their war against cell damage.


Wenk’s world: Brain-saving advice from the expert

Eating right and living well to prevent disease has a lot of science involved. For most of us, better health is more about keeping things simple, not getting all scientific. So consider these suggestions from Dr. Wenk to help keep your brain healthy:

  • Dr. Wenk suggests eating most of your daily food intake early in the day.
  • Eat only one big meal a day, preferably a varied breakfast.
  • An array of nutrients delivered in different forms is digested slowly and can give lasting energy.
  • Look for more color in your life and on your plate. Try new vegetables and fruits — the more vibrant the better.
  • Graze every hour or half-hour or as needed on fruit or nuts. (Fiber and well-chosen fats are metabolized slowly and provide energy longer.)
  • For lunch, think low-fat and colorful; a chicken breast salad or fish with steamed vegetables. The afternoon should hold more nibbles followed by a small dinner.
  • Dinner is a good opportunity to catch up on any nutrients you may be missing. Foods with omega-3 fats, such as salmon, kiwi or walnuts, help keep neurons strong. But keep it light; ideally you want to eat enough to see you through the night but not be too full.


Caffeine: Who knew?

The reason so many crave their morning joe is understandable: Caffeine helps release the brain chemicals that help us to pay attention and learn. Coffee and tea also contain antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds known as flavonoids. So drink as much coffee as you like, as long as your doctor says it’s OK.

Lighten your load

Since metabolism slows with age, it’s also wise to reduce your calorie intake as you get older. For example, if you are 62 years old, your calorie intake should be one-third the amount it was in your 20s, said Dr. Wenk. Create a personalized food plan that’s right for your age, gender, height, weight and other health factors. (See “Additional resources” below.)

In fact, keeping off excess weight and staying physically active are two of the most important steps you can take in saving your brain. Try to fit in what you can and what makes sense for your body and fitness level. Dr. Wenk recommends two hours a week of aerobic exercise but notes that as little as three 20-minute walks a week can be beneficial to your brain.


Healthy in moderation: Alcohol and chocolate

Scientists also have evidence that alcohol can help protect against Alzheimer’s disease. The same chemicals that help protect the heart also benefit our brains. Red wine also contains resveratrol, an effective antioxidant in slowing the aging process. In beer, the golden-colored hops also have antioxidant properties.

But more is not better — drinking excessively is a fast track to many other health problems.

As for chocolate, “There’s no better compound in nature in terms of flavonoids,” said Dr. Wenk. Dark chocolate is best, due to its high cocoa content.


Absolutely not

If you’re looking for the good news on potato chips, fried foods, sugary drinks and processed meats like hot dogs — you won’t find it here. These foods, if eaten too often, not only increase the risk of dementia, but type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol and other health issues.

Check out the “Older & Wiser” section on our website for more tips for a healthy brain. Visit www.harvardpilgrim.org/healthandwellness.


Additional resources

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