A sad, but true, fact of human existence is the inevitability that our minds will decline as we age. Over the course of our lives, our cognitive abilities peak, plateau, and eventually begin to dip as we reach certain age milestones; for example, processing speed begins to decrease in our late teen years, visual working memory peaks in our mid-30s, and yet our vocabulary continues to climb in our 60s and beyond.
Although keeping physically active, socializing with friends and family, and engaging in intellectually stimulating activities like reading and puzzles are among the ways to keep the mind as sharp as a tack, the foods we eat will also provide an extra edge for cognitive function.
Keep your grey matter healthy and eat smart with these 8 brain boosting foods:
1. Fatty Fish
Omega-3 fatty acids are powerful brain food. Found in seafood and shellfish, the best sources of omega-3s are fatty fish like salmon, tuna, herring, mussels, anchovies, sardines, mackerel, and trout.
At each stage of life, omega-3 fatty acids play a crucial role in brain health. During pregnancy, women who consumed seafood regularly or supplemented with fish oil had increased fetal growth in the womb, which provided a boost in brain and eye development. Mothers who took fish oil while breastfeeding resulted in their children having higher verbal intelligence and visual recognition memory by the age of four; women who did not consume omega-3s during the same period resulted in their children having reduced social skills and lower IQs.
Even as adults, our brains continue to benefit from omega-3 fatty acids. Taking a daily fish oil supplement for 35 days resulted in a sizeable boost to cognitive performance, attention, and reaction time compared with a placebo.
Omega-3 fatty acids also help to protect the aging brain. Subjects between the ages of 50 to 75 experienced improved executive function and memory, an increase in the volume of grey matter, and strengthened brain structures after 26 weeks of omega-3 supplementation.
On top of its ability to boost brainpower, omega-3 fatty acids help to stabilize mood and are an effective preventative for clinical depression and other serious psychiatric ailments. Mood is important for overall cognition since we learn much better when we are happy.
An abundant source of antioxidants and phytochemicals, berry fruits are excellent brain foods. Enriched with anthocyanins, caffeic acid, catechin, quercetin, kaempferol, and tannins, berries not only protect the brain from neurodegenerative diseases but also improve memory, learning, and overall cognitive abilities.
Strawberry, blueberry, blackberry, mulberry, huckleberry, and other types of berry fruits alter how neurons in the brain communicate, mediating the signalling involved in inflammatory processes that can damage neurons, enhancing neuroplasticity and neurotransmission. Berries have also been shown to prevent or delay the onset of age-related diseases like Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease due to their anti-oxidative, anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, and anti-proliferative properties.
Nuts are rich in nutrients, protein, fiber, vitamins, antioxidants and other phytochemcials that contribute to metabolic and heart health.
Generally, all kinds of nuts – cashews, peanuts, almonds, walnuts, and pecans, to name a few – contain monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids that improve insulin sensitivity, reduce the risk of cancer, and lessen chronic inflammation. And keeping your cardiovascular system in good working order has been linked to better cognitive function today and later in life.
In evaluating how various fruits and vegetables impact cognitive abilities over the long-term, nuts were identified as one of the best foods to boost and maintain brain health according to research published in British Journal of Nutrition. Using data gleaned from the Doetinchem Cohort Study, a sample of 2613 men and women between the ages of 43 and 70 were subjected to a battery of neuropsychological tests twice, five years apart. Those who ate nuts regularly had better cognitive functioning (memory, information processing speed, and cognitive flexibility) at baseline and had a lower risk of mental decline during subsequent testing.
While all types of nuts are good for the noggin, the best nuts to eat for improved brain function appear to be walnuts. In another large scale study, consuming an average of 10 grams of walnuts per day resulted in faster response time, information processing speed, and better scores in memory, concentration, and motor control than those who ate other kinds of nuts.
Turmeric, the pungent yellow spice, is truly one of the most dynamic healing herbs on the planet. Studies on curcumin, its chief medicinal component, have shown that it bolsters physical health to improve immunity, defend against depression, aid digestion, protect the heart, and more. Applied topically, it is an excellent tonic for the skin with strong anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anti-aging, and anti-cancer properties.
Curcumin is also incredibly good for the brain. Numerous studies have found that it protects against the onset of Alzheimer’s disease by crossing the blood-brain barrier to ease oxidative stress, neutralize free radicals, inhibit pro-inflammatory enzymes, and delay the degradation of neurons. Most significantly, it clears away beta-amyloid plaques in the brain – one of the hallmarks of developing Alzheimer’s disease. When consumed by people who have Alzheimer’s disease, it improves memory and cognitive performance.
In addition to its neuroprotective capabilities, curcumin shows promise as a cognition enhancer in healthy brains. Published in 2012, the animal study involved feeding aged rats a curcumin enriched diet for 12 weeks and assessed behavioral performance and cell proliferation in the hippocampus region of the brain. The researchers found that curcumin interacted with various genes involved in the brain, which improved memory formation, boosted brain cell growth, and increased neuroplasticity – or the brain’s ability to rewire itself.
5. Cruciferous Vegetables
Of the Brassica family, cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, kale, collard greens, brussels sprouts, and bok choy provide a good source of vitamin K – a key nutrient for brain cell signalling.
A fat soluble vitamin, vitamin K is essential for the formation of sphingolipids – a type of fat found in abundance in brain cell membranes.
While data on vitamin K’s role in cognition and behavior is limited, new evidence suggests that it may improve memory in older adults. Published in Neurobiology of Aging, a cross-sectional analysis of 320 healthy men and women between the ages of 70 to 85 years old found that those who had higher concentrations of vitamin K in their bodies had better episodic memory – the ability to encode, store, and retrieve recent or past events and experiences.
Interestingly, consuming a vitamin K rich diet may help to reverse the effects of impaired memory function. In a 2016 observational study, those who consumed the least amount of dietary vitamin K rated poorly on memory tests. But when vitamin K was increased, they had much better outcomes in subjective memory questionnaires.
Life-long coffee drinkers take note, drinking a few cups of joe each day has major benefits for brain health.
Although coffee is a good source of several antioxidants, it is the caffeine in coffee that is good for your grey matter.
Caffeine impacts the brain in several ways. It increases alertness, which improves reaction time, visual attention, and passive learning. When consumed in moderation, it boosts mood and decreases the risk of depression.
Caffeine also provides neuroprotective effects. Improving working memory and reaction time in older adults (particularly women), drinking one cup of coffee in the morning can prevent cognitive decline between morning and afternoon in the elderly. Those who are habitual coffee drinkers have a significantly reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease in their lifetime.
Of course, too much caffeine can cause anxiety and insomnia so it’s best to limit your caffeine intake to 200 mg per sitting (about 2.5 cups of coffee) or 400 mg per day (5 cups total daily).
7. Dark Chocolate
Made up of 70% to 100% pure cocoa, dark chocolate is an excellent source of flavanols, polyphenols, proanthocyanins, and other antioxidants. While it is best known for its ability to improve blood flow throughout the body and maintain cardiovascular health, dark chocolate is also very good for keeping the mind sharp.
According to a review published in 2013, the flavonoids in dark chocolate exert a number of beneficial actions on the brain. Readily absorbed and detectable just 30 minutes after consumption, flavanols cross the blood-brain barrier and accumulate in regions associated with learning and memory. They interact with cellular signalling pathways, trigger gene expression that help establish long-term memories, promote the formation of new neurons, and enhance cerebral blood flow.
This cascade of brain events may help explain how eating dark chocolate improves cognitive function. In a large longitudinal study involving 968 participants between 23 to 98 years old, regular dark chocolate consumption was associated with improved cognitive performance and protection from age-related cognitive decline. The participants who ate the most dark chocolate had better scores in working memory, episodic memory, visual-spatial memory and organization, and abstract reasoning.
Though small in stature, edible plant seeds are densely packed with nutrients that help boost brainpower. Seeds are rich in healthy fats, essential amino acids, antioxidants, fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals. These are the best ones for your head:
Sunflower seeds are a good source of vitamin E and thiamine, both of which are vital to a fully functioning mind. Studies have shown that vitamin E supports healthy brain function, improves cognitive performance, and reduces the risk of dementia later in life. Likewise, thiamine plays a key role in brain function; people who are deficient in thiamine are at a much greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
Sunflower seeds are also high in tryptophan, an essential amino acid that boosts serotonin receptors in the brain. Serotonin is involved in both mood and learning, with lower levels associated with several cognitive impairments and higher levels having a beneficial impact on memory and attention.
Offering a vegan alternative to fatty fish, flaxseed is one of the best plant sources for brain boosting omega-3 fatty acids. Flax is also an excellent source of thiamine and vitamin K. Its wealth of other B vitamins, like folate and niacin, ensures that flaxseed can protect the aging brain from cognitive decline.
Not only do pumpkin seeds contain vitamin K, folate, and thiamine, they are also teeming with good-for-the-brain minerals:
Magnesium has been shown to preserve cognitive function and promote synaptic plasticity in the brain, which contributes to both learning and memory. Per cup, pumpkin seeds provide 185% of the daily value for magnesium.
Iron deficiencies have been linked to cognitive impairments such as reduced attention span, intelligence, sensory perception, and the phenomenon of “brain fog”. Pumpkin seeds are an excellent source of iron, providing 115% of the daily value.
Copper, too, is essential for maintaining brain function and health. Low levels of copper in the body and brain increases one’s risk of several neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s disease. Pumpkin seeds are rich in copper, providing 96% of the daily value.