Though some memory lapses are normal as you age (forgetting where you put the keys, a word at the tip of your tongue that you can’t retrieve), serious memory decline is not a given. You can keep your mind sharp and reduce the risk of serious memory impairments by concentrating on what you eat. Your diet, along with a few other lifestyle factors, can shape the way your brain functions and improve cognitive thinking skills, like your ability to learn something new, absorb important details, problem solve, complete complex tasks, and think critically.
It’s not necessary — or even a good idea — to wait for signs that your memory is slipping before you address your brain health. You can optimize your brain functioning by eating like your memory and thinking skills depend on it — because they do.
What type of benefits can I expect?
Research suggests that older people who adhere to a Mediterranean diet or a similar eating pattern that’s known as the MIND diet do much better on cognitive tests than those who follow less healthful dietary advice. The MIND diet is a mashup between the Mediterranean Diet and another healthy eating plan known as the DASH Diet, which was originally intended to help lower high blood pressure. It turns out, looking after your heart and vascular health is also good for your brain health, so the MIND diet combines principles from these two plans along with some specific advice to keep your brain sharp.
Beyond the memory impairments that may be typical of aging, studies also link these eating patterns to a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease, and what’s interesting is that even people who didn’t rigorously follow the MIND diet showed benefit. In the study, those who loosely followed the plan experienced a 35 percent lower risk of Alzheimer’s Disease (compared to a 53 percent reduction in risk among those who followed the diet more closely). Another study on the MIND diet suggested that compared with people who weren’t following its recommendations, those who followed the eating advice most closely had the cognitive skills of folks 7 ½ years younger, which is a pretty dramatic benefit.
Separate research has also linked healthy eating combined with other lifestyle measures to improvements in brain functioning. The study looked at people between 60 and 77 years old who were at risk for dementia and other forms of cognitive decline as indicated by the fact that they were already performing worse on these assessments than what would be expected for their age. The researchers found that after two years of following the lifestyle interventions, which included a healthy eating plan, physical activity, participation in intellectually stimulating brain exercises, and looking after their vascular health through blood work and other measures, those on the plan scored 25 percent higher on tests that assess mental functioning. Executive functioning scores improved even more; people in the lifestyle intervention group scored 83 percent higher, which translates to a better ability to organize information and stay focused on tasks — in other words, get stuff done! Processing speed also got a big boost — scores were 150 percent higher among the healthy lifestyle group. Processing speed relates to how quickly you receive and respond to information, so a faster processing speed could help you make decisions more quickly or it could make tasks like reading or taking notes easier on you.
What to eat for better brain health
To help you keep your brain sharp, load up on these foods, which are the pillars of the MIND diet.
Dark leafy greens
These wholesome greens provide important brain-protecting compounds, such as folate, phylloquinone and lutein. In one study that measured leafy green intake over an average of more than 4 ½ years among adults up to 99 years old, researchers found that just a bit over one serving of leafy green veggies per day helped preserve brainpower. The group that met this target had the memory and thinking skills of people 11 years younger! There are so many easy ways to fold these foods into meals. You can have a small side salad at dinner, toss some kale into a protein-packed smoothie, serve sautéed greens along with an egg scramble, and stir into pasta, soups, and stews.
In addition to leafy greens, the MIND diet (along with every healthful eating plan) emphasizes vegetables so try to have another type of veggie every single day. This doesn’t need to be complicated. Stack tomatoes and red pepper strips into sandwiches, have a stir fry with broccoli and cauliflower, incorporate fun veggie noodles (like zucchini or carrot noodles) into pasta dinners, or just serve up a snack with cherry tomatoes and hummus.
Nuts are packed with anti-inflammatory fats and other nutrients that help keep your brain healthy as you age. One study looked at the eating habits of a large population of women for more than a decade and found that compared to those who were eating the fewest nuts, those who ate about five servings per week had the brain functioning of women two years younger.
Sprinkle nuts over salads, use them to garnish wintery soups, yogurt parfaits and oatmeal, use them to form snacks, like energy bites and bars, or just snack on a portion (about an ounce) straight up.
Pulses (beans and legumes)
3 or more servings per week
These plant protein powerhouses have also been linked with better preservation of memory and thinking skills and another study showed the reverse was true, too — that lower intakes were linked with an increase in cognitive declines. The MIND diet calls for at least three servings per week.
Though you can boost your intake by having a few meatless meals each week, you could also include these plant-based proteins alongside a smaller portion of animal-based proteins. For instance, serve your turkey taco salad with some black beans or pinto beans, use hummus (a dip made from chickpeas) as a turkey sandwich spread, or serve a garlicky white bean mash as a side to roasted chicken or turkey.
2 or more servings per week
It’s thought that the antioxidants known as flavonoids in berries help protect your brain function and reduce the risk of cognitive impairment. Hitting the two-serving mark is easy! Add fresh or unsweetened frozen berries to smoothies, yogurt, chia puddings and cold cereal. Or serve some warmed berries with a dollop of Greek yogurt and a sprinkling of nuts for dessert. When in season, berries are also a nice way to brighten up a salad.
1 or more serving per week
Though the Mediterranean diet and even our own Dietary Guidelines call for eating more seafood (about twice per week), the MIND diet’s target may be easier to achieve. Oily fish, like salmon and sardines, provide anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats that may be especially helpful. Canned wild tuna and salmon are everyday easy options that will help you meet your seafood needs.
2 or more servings per week
This is another food option that makes the MIND diet incredibly flexible. Chances are, unless you’re vegan or vegetarian, you’re most likely already eating chicken and turkey. These protein choices are healthier for your brain than red meat, like beef, pork and lamb.
3 or more servings a day
Your brain requires a lot of energy — about 20 percent of the calories you consume go to fueling your brain. And its preferred source of fuel is glucose, which comes from the breakdown of carbohydrates. The MIND, DASH and Mediterranean diets emphasize whole grains and research backs up their brain-boosting benefit. In one study among more than 5,000 people, low whole grain intake (as well as a higher intake of less healthful foods, like red meat) was linked with more advanced cognitive decline. In another study, people who followed the advice of the DASH or Mediterranean diets consistently showed higher levels of cognitive functioning over an 11-year period. Specifically, whole grains, nuts and legumes were linked to better brain functioning.
Trade up your white bread sandwich for a whole grain version, go for brown rice over white rice, and choose whole grain cereals (including oatmeal) and sides (such as quinoa).
Extra virgin olive oil, or EVOO, is the primary oil used on both the MIND diet and the Mediterranean Diet. Since quality EVOO has a distinct flavor, you may want to use avocado oil, which has a more neutral flavor, as your backup. The compounds in avocados have been linked with better blood pressure, blood sugar, and blood flow, all of which help optimize brain health.
1 serving per day
If you enjoy a glass of wine at night, this will come as welcome news: The MIND diet allows for up to a glass of wine each day. Though health recommendations allow for up to two drinks per day for men, the MIND diet sticks with just a glass since older men don’t metabolize alcohol in the same way as younger men. Wine is preferred because of its polyphenol content, which may provide some protection. Just note that while a glass of wine can be a lovely way to unwind and preserve your brain functioning, more is not better, and may increase your risk of memory and other impairments.
Bonus: Dark chocolate
While it’s not included on the MIND diet, dark chocolate has also been studied for its impact on brain health. Studies have linked dark chocolate, which is high in antioxidant compounds known as flavanoids, to improvements in working memory and better blood flow to the brain. It’s also thought that dark chocolate may increase brain neuroplasticity, which may enhance your brain’s capacity to learn as you age. While sweets are eaten in moderation on a brain-boosting plan, if you’re going to eat them, 70 percent or higher dark chocolate may be a good choice.
Foods to Limit
The MIND diet suggests limiting these foods for better brain health:
- Fewer than 5 servings of sweets per week.
- Fewer than 4 servings of red meat per week. (Some health authorities would suggest eating even less, depending on your health and goals.)
- Fewer than 1 serving of cheese per week.
- Fewer than 1 serving of fried or fast food each week.
- Fewer than a tablespoon of butter per day.
Notably, many of the foods on this list are prime dietary sources of saturated fat, which research suggests may increase the risk of Alzheimer’s Disease. These fats may also raise risk of heart disease and diabetes, which can increase risk of dementia.
Should you try the MIND diet?
It’s easy to take your brain for granted until it isn’t performing as well as you’d like. But not taking care of your brain health now can impact your quality of life as you age, affecting your memory and ability to think clearly. There’s really no downside to trying the MIND diet other than the fact that you may need to get used to eating new foods or cutting back on certain foods you might eat often. And remember, even those who followed it loosely benefited. Since this dietary pattern is also among the healthiest for your heart, blood pressure, blood sugar, and waistline, the payoffs could be huge.
MORE FROM SAMANTHA CASSETTY, RD
Want more tips like these? NBC News BETTER is obsessed with finding easier, healthier and smarter ways to live. Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.