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En español | The research is clear: What you eat has a big impact on your brain. In fact, the right foods — and combinations of foods — can enhance memory, build new brain cells and even help ward off Alzheimer's.
Scientists are increasingly examining whole food groups — and diets — to determine which ones contribute to better cognition and which seem to hinder it. They've found that certain eating plans — including the Mediterranean diet, the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet and a hybrid of the two, dubbed the MIND diet — can help stave off cognitive decline and protect the brain against disease. The MIND diet, developed by researchers at Rush University in Chicago, slashed the risk of developing Alzheimer's by as much as 53 percent. (MIND stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay.) Even those who followed the diet moderately had a 35 percent lower risk of Alzheimer's.
Why the MIND advantage? Like the Mediterranean and DASH diets, the MIND diet emphasizes fish, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, beans and a daily glass of wine. But MIND goes one step further, specifying brain-boosting produce such as berries and leafy greens. According to study author Martha Clare Morris, professor of nutritional epidemiology at Rush, people who ate one to two servings of green leafy vegetables a day were cognitively 11 years younger than those who ate fewer greens. Blueberries may have the best cognitive perks.
"The common denominator in all three diets is a plant-based eating pattern that is low in saturated and trans fats and high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats," says Morris — and experts agree fat composition is a key player in cognition.
A recent Spanish study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that supplementing the already brain-healthy Mediterranean diet with additional servings of olive oil and nuts — both of which boast inflammation-fighting unsaturated fats — enhances memory and information processing. On the flip side, a study published in PLOS One earlier this year linked higher trans fat intake with poorer performance on memory tests.
"Follow the Mediterranean or the MIND diets and your mind will be sharper in six months — and less susceptible to Alzheimer's disease decades later," agrees Majid Fotuhi, M.D., medical director of NeuroGrow Brain Fitness Center and affiliate staff at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore. What makes these diets so powerful? Key foods within them have different brain-boosting benefits, Fotuhi says. Emphasize even a few of these and your brain will thank you for years to come.
1. Olive oil, green tea and leafy greens (broccoli, spinach and kale)
Each of these antioxidant superfoods helps fight inflammation. And while inflammation is the body's natural response to injury, uncontrolled inflammation over time can damage the brain. Intervene with these anti-inflammatory foods before neurons die, and you may be able to restore normal brain function, says Paula C. Bickford, professor of neurosurgery and brain repair at the University of South Florida.
2. Beets, tomatoes and avocados
These three darkly-hued foods help ensure that your brain receives the blood it needs to stay sharp. Studies suggest increased blood flow to the brain promotes neuron growth in the hippocampus, the area of the brain associated with learning and memory.
3. Nuts (especially walnuts), curcumin and pomegranates
These foods work deep in the brain to fight amyloid plaques. While amyloid is required for brain cells to communicate, when it accumulates several thousand times beyond normal levels, it forms plaques. These plaques kill neurons while creating inflammation, which kills even more neurons.
4. Fish, blueberries, grapes, coffee and dark chocolate
These nutrient powerhouses have been shown to increase the level of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that supports the growth of new neurons. "It's like Miracle-Gro for the brain," says Fotuhi. "Stimulating the release of BDNF not only reverses the effects of aging, but also triggers the brain to make more neurons."
Amy Paturel is a health and science writer in California.