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Brain-healthy diet important for all ages

by Doris Penner

More than half a million Canadians currently live with dementia, a number which will increase as a higher percentage of people enters the aging population over the next few decades. The most frequent cause of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease, a progressive degenerative disorder that attacks neurons (nerve cells) in the brain, resulting in loss of memory, thinking and language skills as well as behavioural changes, symptoms common to most forms of dementia. While Alzheimer’s as other forms of dementia are seen as conditions of “old age,” growing evidence shows changes in the brain that may result in dementia can begin more than 25 years before symptoms manifest themselves. In other words, it is important for people of any age to consider brain health.

No doubt everyone would agree the brain is a vital organ in the body, defining our lives both cognitively and physically. There are, indeed, a myriad of ways to help keep the brain healthy throughout the younger years, and stave off the death of brain cells as one ages. Mental stimulation comes from consistently engaging in activities that are new and complex such as reading, word and mathematical puzzles, hobbies that demand figuring out directions and the like. This helps the brain to build “reserves” related to plasticity of neurons, aiding in building new connections as old ones die.

Right balance of nutrients

Of utmost importance is following a brain-healthy diet, which you might be relieved to hear, is simply a well-balanced diet, incorporating a variety of foods in the four food groups, since the brain needs the right balance of nutrients (protein, vitamins and minerals) to function properly. This is the type of diet that also reduces the risk of heart disease—avoiding foods high in saturated fat and cholesterol which clog the arteries. You can readily see the connection since the brain needs a good and steady blood flow to do its work properly.

In addition, blood flow is augmented by plenty of physical activity so this becomes important in brain health, and as well keeps weight in check. A long-term study found that those who were obese in middle age were twice as likely as others to develop dementia in later life.

Thirdly, it is worth your while to increase intake of so-called “protective foods”—that is, foods that appear to help reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, and protect brain cells. Look for foods high in antioxidants such as dark-skinned fruits and vegetables including spinach, broccoli, sweet red peppers, kale, berries, plums and oranges. Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish such as salmon, halibut, trout and tuna will protect brain cells as will the antioxidant vitamin E—an excellent source is nuts including almonds, pecans and walnuts.

Member of vitamin B family

In recent years, great interest has been focused on choline, a member of the vitamin B family, as playing an important role in mental health. Because of its unique chemical configuration (it has three methyl groups instead of the usual one), it is particularly adept at sending messages from nerve to nerve in the brain.

In addition, since choline is a key component of many fat-containing structures which make up a high percentage of total solids in the brain, an adequate supply of the B vitamin is of utmost importance for brain health and potential for use in brain disorders. Choline is also a key component of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter which carries messages between the brain and nerves throughout the body.

The best sources of choline are egg yolks, soybeans, broccoli, spinach, cauliflower, asparagus, shrimp, cod and salmon.

There are a few supplements that will help boost brain health. Suggestions are choline bitartrate which assists with the synthesis of acetylcholine (see above), acetyl-L-carnitine with neurological benefits and phosphatidylserine which seems to reduce the risk of dementia (more research is needed to confirm this). All appear to aid improvement in memory and cognition.

January is Alzheimer Awareness Month. If someone you know is showing signs of dementia, encourage a visit to a physician. Early diagnosis opens the door to important information and resources including medications that can slow down the progress of the disease.