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Focus on a Brain-Healthy Diet

Eating healthy foods is not only good for your body—it's also a smart move to make in order to keep your brain sharp. Focus on the following nutrition tips to reap the rewards of a brain-healthy diet:

1) Vegetables

The latest news from neuroscience confirms what Mom always said: Eat your vegetables! For all the interest in individual vitamins and supplement formulas, the best advice is to eat a variety of colorful, cruciferous, and leafy green vegetables.

A recent federally funded study of 13,388 nurses that has tracked their eating patterns for 10 years found that women who ate more cruciferous and leafy vegetables in their 60's including broccoli, cauliflower, green lettuces and spinach, had a lower rate of decline on a battery of learning and memory tests. The more of these vegetables they ate, the better they performed.

A diet rich in fruits and vegetables has long been promoted for its heart-healthy and cancer-fighting potential, so it's not surprising that such a diet is also good for your brain. Vegetables and fruits are packed with antioxidants and other essential vitamins and minerals, are low in fat, and are generally low in calories.

2) Antioxidants

Of all the dietary factors that are being investigated for possible roles in staving off mental decline with aging, antioxidants have received the most attention. Antioxidants, which include vitamins C, E, and beta carotene (a form of vitamin A), reduce oxidative damage to cells.

Oxidation, which can be thought of as the biological equivalent of rusting, seems to contribute to aging and cognitive decline. (For more information about oxidation and the brain, see Free Radicals and Aging.)

Human studies of antioxidant use have yielded mixed results. This is partly because our diets are generally quite varied, and it's very difficult to prove that health benefits are the result of any one dietary factor. Animal studies, on the other hand, have shown consistent benefits for diets rich in antioxidants.

For example, a series of studies in beagles found that an antioxidant-rich diet prevented or slowed age-related declines in various learning tasks. The animals that were fed the special diet had improved performance on both simple and complex cognitive tests.

In fact, aged dogs that could not perform one of the more difficult tests at all in the beginning of the study could do so after three years on the diet. "We actually resurrected function out of the aging brain," says Carl Cotman, a member of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives who led the study. "That just blew us away."

A series of studies out of Tufts University has shown that animals fed diets high in blueberries had improved short-term memory and balance. The ingredient that gives blueberries their color appears to endow them with potent antioxidant properties.

Foods High in Antioxidants

(listed from most to lesser amounts)

Fruits Vegetables








Red grapes



Brussels sprouts

Alfalfa sprouts

Broccoli florets


Red bell peppers




Source: USDA

3) Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3s are a particular type of polyunsaturated fats that are found in fatty fish. Scientific literature indicates that omega-3s are important to maintaining brain function in early development and throughout life, and may help protect the brain from aging.

Fatty acids seem to work in part by counteracting free radicals that cause oxidative damage to brain cells, and some research suggests they may help improve the efficiency of nerve signal transmission at synapses.

The best sources of omega-3s are mackerel, herring, sardines, tuna, anchovies, whitefish, and sablefish.

4) B Vitamins

B vitamins are of interest because of their effectiveness in lowering levels of homocysteine, a blood protein that is associated with increased risk for cardiovascular disease as well as Alzheimer's and other types of dementia.

In particular, scientists are investigating whether folate, or folic acid, may have a role in preventing Alzheimer's disease. Folate and other B vitamins are currently being evaluated in a clinical trial for people with Alzheimer's.

5) Multivitamin Supplements

Most experts are comfortable recommending that older adults take a daily multivitamin as a supplement to a healthy diet. Claudia H. Kawas, M.D., neurologist and expert in aging from University of California, Irvine, and also a member of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, says she is not at all opposed to multivitamins.

"I don't think any of our diets are that good, and as people get older and are eating less, they may have diets that are lower in various nutrients," Kawas explains. Still, the best advice, she says, "is to do what your mother told you to do: Eat all those healthy fruits and vegetables."

A common misperception is that if taking some vitamins is good, taking more may be better. This is not always the case, and some vitamins can be dangerous in high doses. A recent study found that people taking moderately high doses of vitamin E had increased overall mortality rates. The vitamin is an antioxidant being studied for health-protective effects in a number of federally funded clinical trials.

Vitamins and herbal supplements can also interact with prescription medications, lowering their effectiveness or causing adverse effects. When you visit your doctor, bring a list of medicines you take, and be sure to include any supplements like over-the-counter vitamins) and their amounts in the list.

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