Making the right food choices can keep your brain healthy
By Diana Kerwin, MD, Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas, North Dallas LIVING WELL Magazine
There are a number of ways, as we grow older, that we can improve our overall health and sharpen our memory.
As Chief of the Section of Geriatric Medicine at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas, my goal for the aging population is to increase exercise and promote a brain-healthy diet. And as a specialist in cognitive disorders and brain health, much of my career has been spent researching about how the brain changes as we age and what steps we can take to keep it healthy.
I’m also the medical director of Texas Alzheimer’s and Memory Disorders, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice in Dallas, and I serve on the board of the Alzheimer’s Association. My practice is dedicated to promoting the health of my patients through education on how to improve their brain health through food choices––a nutrient-dense diet is a big part of the prescription for my patients.
The simple truth
While it’s easy to simply say, “eat healthy,” the truth is that many times we’re confronted with complicated data that sometimes contradicts itself when offering what we believe are helpful tips for our diet.
The recent explosion of food science, government recommendations and new products has overwhelmed us with information. We’re encouraged to read labels to find optimum levels of nutrients, balance our meals and use supplements. We hear about antioxidants, Omega 3s vs. 6s, probiotics, good fats, bad fats, nitrates, gluten, power bars and energy drinks, etc.
I advocate for maintaining an ideal body weight by making brain-healthy food choices with a simple plan: choose fresh ingredients; avoid simple sugars; consume lots of whole foods (nothing processed); and avoid fast food. These steps are nothing new––but it can be challenging at first to adopt this new approach to a brain-healthy diet.
Like the heart, the brain also needs the right balance of nutrients––including protein and sugar–– to function well. A brain-healthy diet is most effective when combined with physical and mental activity and social interaction.
Regular exercise throughout all stages of life is healthy, and it’s never too late to start. The brain benefits are immediate. Begin by adding 30 minutes of exercises four times a week; be sure to consult with your doctor about how to safely increase your exercise.
Advice about Alzheimer’s
Sure, it takes more effort to eat healthy. But a poor diet, eaten over many years, increases our risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes and even Alzheimer’s disease.
Research shows that a healthy diet can diminish these risks and enhance our longevity. But we need to know what to eat, how much to eat, and why it’s important that we make these decisions now.
Diet and nutrition are two of the first treatments I discuss with patients who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. And to their family members without memory loss, I offer the same advice.
All of the healthy-eating recommendations I make are based on vitamins and minerals that support our minds and bodies in countless ways. Aim to eat:
- dark leafy greens––every day
- fish––two or more times a week
- beets––once a month
- eggs––one to three times a week
- olive oil––two tablespoons a day
- turmeric––as often as possible
- Add a bit of dark chocolate for indulgence and to up your antioxidants
Food as ultimate protector
Think of food as the ultimate protector and as your medicine. Choose foods that serve your individual needs and improve your brain health and overall health as you age.
Think of B vitamins for your brain; our bodies use B vitamins to keep the nerves and the brain healthy. When B levels start to decline around age 55, mental performance may suffer. Eating turkey, chicken, and seafood (clams, mussels and mackerel) are good sources of Vitamin B12. To boost your B6 levels, choose potatoes, bananas, prunes, greens and pinto and kidney beans.
The recent research on vitamin E supplements may have some benefit in delaying the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. But the optimal dose is unknown, so look for vitamin E in your food sources (wheat germ, olive oil, nuts and seeds).
With the growing knowledge around food choices, we can make good decisions and balance our scales to live the longest, healthiest lives possible. I have seen dietary changes work to improve outcomes for a lot of patients, including those with Alzheimer’s, and I encourage everyone to change what they eat to include more nutrient-dense foods.
Diana Kerwin, MD, is the chief of geriatrics at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas and medical director of Texas Alzheimer’s and Memory Disorders, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice.