Our brains are the control centres of our bodies. They keep our hearts beating, lungs breathing, and allow us to move, think, and feel. While cognitive function can naturally slow down later in life, certain lifestyle factors, like diet, can impact our risk of age-related cognitive decline and dementia.
Interestingly, science has estimated that over 75% of the brain changes associated with dementia could be connected to our lifestyles. What’s more, separate research suggests that by eating certain foods, we can reduce our risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by up to 53%.
With this in mind, we’ve put together a list of 11 foods that can help to reduce the risk of dementia.
1. Fatty fish
When we speak about brain boosting foods, fatty fish is often at the top of the list. Examples of fatty fish include tuna, salmon, trout, and sardines – all of which are rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
The brain itself is made from fat; about half of which is composed of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s are important for building brain and nerve cells, and play a key role in learning and memory.
Research has shown that omega-3s can also slow age-related mental decline and help prevent the development of Alzheimer’s disease. It’s also been revealed that a lack of omega-3s is linked with learning impairments and depression.
Other studies have suggested that people who eat fatty fish regularly tend to have more gray matter in their brains. Gray matter is made mostly of the nerve cells that control memory, decision-making, and emotion.
You only need to eat fatty fish once a week to enjoy the health benefits. For inspiration, check out these 10 oily fish recipes from The Guardian. You’ll find everything from quick and easy lunch recipes like mackerel pate on toast and whitebait fritters, to delicious dinners like fresh trout salad and smoked salmon pasta.
If a cup of coffee is the highlight of your morning, then good news: the two main components of coffee – caffeine and antioxidants – can help to support brain health.
Meanwhile, science suggests that long-term effects of drinking coffee include a reduced risk of neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Studies show that the greatest risk reduction isin adults who consume between three to four cups of coffee each day.
That being said, overconsumption of caffeine has been shown to cause side-effects like anxiety, insomnia, increased urination, and digestive issues, so it’s important not to over-do it. Experts recommend having no more than six cups per day.
Blueberries provide several brain-boosting health benefits. Like other deeply-coloured berries, blueberries contain anthocyanins – a group of plant compounds with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.
Antioxidants help to prevent oxidative stress (an imbalance of free radicals in the body that can damage cells) and inflammation, both of which can contribute to cognitive ageing and neurodegenerative diseases. Studies have also shown that some antioxidants in blueberries can accumulate in the brain and help improve communication between brain cells.
Blueberries are delicious on their own, but also make great additions to a variety of dishes. Hopefully one of these 56 healthy ways to eat more blueberries from Greatist will take your fancy. From healthy blueberry muffins, breakfast bars, and smoothies, to blueberry guacamole and quinoa salad, there’s something for everyone.
To enjoy the health benefits, it’s recommended that you eat blueberries at least twice a week.
Turmeric is a deep-yellow spice often used as a key ingredient in curry powder.
Curcumin – the active ingredient in turmeric – has been shown to cross the blood-brain barrier, where it can directly enter the brain and protect cells against age-related decline.
Studies have suggested that curcumin could help to clear amyloid plaques in the brain, which are a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease. It’s also thought to help brain cells grow, which can help to delay age-related cognitive decline.
Nevertheless, it’s worth keeping in mind that the majority of research uses highly concentrated curcumin supplements. These contain much more curcumin than most people typically consume from using turmeric as a spice, which is only made up of around 3-6% curcumin.
As a result, while seasoning your food with turmeric can be beneficial, the full benefits can only be gained by taking a curcumin supplement. However, you should always speak to your GP before starting to take anything.
5. Pumpkin seeds
Pumpkin seeds are full of powerful antioxidants that can protect the body and brain from free-radical damage (free radicals are unstable atoms that can damage cells and cause illness and ageing).
Zinc and copper for example, are essential for nerve signalling, and zinc deficiency has been linked to various neurological conditions including Alzheimer’s disease, depression, and Parkinson’s disease. Meanwhile, magnesium is vital for learning and memory, and iron deficiency can lead to brain fog and compromised brain function.
Pumpkin seeds are delicious when sprinkled over colourful salads and crunchy granola. Have a look at these healthy pumpkin seed recipes from Eating Well. For example, you could try making pumpkin-seed-crusted salmon, or a low-carb pumpkin seeded bread loaf.
Vitamin K is essential for forming sphingolipids – a type of fat closely packed into brain cells. Studies in older adults have shown that increased vitamin K intake is linked with better memory and cognitive function.
Beyond the role of vitamin K, broccoli also contains various compounds with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects that can help protect the brain against damage.
Experts suggest eating at least two servings of broccoli a week, and six or more servings for the greatest brain benefits. If you’re not a fan of broccoli, you can always pick an alternative from the cruciferous vegetable family, such as spinach, kale, and cabbage. Why not try making one of these delicious cruciferous vegetable recipes from A Couple Cooks?
7. Dark chocolate
Dark chocolate and cocoa powder are full of brain boosting compounds, including caffeine and flavonoids (a type of antioxidant).
Flavonoids in dark chocolate gather in areas of the brain that regulate learning and memory. Experts have suggested that these compounds can improve memory and slow down age-related mental decline.
This study of 900 people showed that those who ate chocolate more frequently performed better in a series of mental tasks – including improved memory function – compared with those who ate it less often.
Plus, aside from its brain health benefits, dark chocolate is also a proven mood booster. This study found that participants who ate chocolate experienced increased positive feelings compared to those who ate crackers.
However, dark chocolate has 70% higher cocoa content than other types of chocolate. So unfortunately, the same benefits aren’t seen in milk chocolate, which only contains between 10 and 50% cocoa.
If you’re in the mood for some chocolate, you could try making these healthy dark chocolate treats from This Healthy Table, which contain chocolate, pomegranate, orange, and pistachios.
The brain boosting benefits of nuts may not be as obvious, as they’re mainly associated with improved heart health. However, a healthy heart and healthy brain are intrinsically linked. Research has shown that a healthy heart can slow cognitive ageing.
One study found that women who ate nuts regularly over several years had sharper memories than those who didn’t eat nuts at all.
These benefits can be traced back to the various nutrients found in nuts, including healthy fats, vitamin E, and antioxidants. For example, vitamin E is known to protect cells against free-radical damage and slow mental decline.
While all nuts have benefits when it comes to brain health, it’s believed that walnuts may have an extra edge because they’re also rich in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. To reap the full benefits of eating nuts for brain health, experts recommend eating them at least five times a week.
You can read more about how to eat nuts the healthy way on Harvard Health.
This study found that having higher levels of vitamin C in the blood was associated with improved performance in tasks centred on memory, focus, attention, and decision-making speed.
Vitamin C is also a powerful antioxidant that helps fight off free radicals to prevent damage to brain cells. This is key to protecting brain cells as you age, and can help to reduce the risk of conditions like anxiety, depression, and Alzheimer’s disease.
You’ll find plenty of delicious healthy orange recipes on Eating Well. Or, if you don’t like oranges, you’ll still find high amounts of vitamin C in other foods such as kiwi, bell peppers, tomatoes, guava, and strawberries.
Eggs are a great source of several nutrients linked to brain health, including vitamins B12 and B6, choline, and folate. Choline is an important micronutrient that the body uses to create acetylcholine (a neurotransmitter that helps to regulate mood and memory).
Studies have revealed that a higher intake of choline was linked to better memory and mental function. However, many people don’t get enough choline in their diet.
A good way of boosting choline intake is through eggs, given that egg yolks are one of the most concentrated sources of the nutrient. The recommended daily intake of choline is 425mg per day for most women and 550mg for men. A single egg yolk contains around 112mg.
In addition, research has found that the B vitamins found in eggs may help to slow the progression of cognitive decline in older adults. This is because B vitamins help to lower levels of homocysteine – an amino acid linked to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
For some new ways to enjoy eggs, why not try one of these healthy egg recipes from BBC Good Food?
11. Green tea
Just like with coffee, the caffeine found in green tea boosts brain function. Studies have shown that green tea can improve memory, alertness, performance, and focus.
The fact that green tea is rich in polyphenols and antioxidants is also important, as these have been shown to help protect the brain from cognitive decline and reduce the risk of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Green tea is available in a variety of flavours, including gingerbread and raspberry, and contains zero calories when unsweetened. You can browse the green tea varieties available to buy on Amazon.
Our can diets have a direct impact on our brain health and cognitive function. And by making some quick and easy diet tweaks, science tells us that we can help to reduce our chances of developing dementia later in life. So why not start today?
For more tips on what lifestyle changes can help to boost brain health, have a read of our articles How exercise can lead to better brain health, and 9 activities that are scientifically proven to improve brain health.
What steps do you take to take care of your brain health? Are there any other foods that you think are worth noting? We’d love to hear from you. Join the conversation on the Rest Less community forum, or leave a comment below.