The foods we eat every day certainly play a role in our cognitive functioning. Ever sleep in past your alarm in college and be forced to sprint to take a grueling exam on an empty stomach? Not fun. But as we get older, the connection between nutrition and brain health becomes more pronounced in several ways. For starters, because the brain declines naturally with age, our risk of cognitive decline and disorders (such as dementia and Alzheimer’s) increases as we get older. This is why it’s vital to make sure your meals are incorporating brain-boosting nutrients: They’ll help keep you sharp both today and in the long term.
“Medical professionals and physicians are more than familiar with the general—and natural—cognitive decline that is associated with aging, as the brain does not make new cells as we age,” says neuroscientist Sonja K. Billes, PhD, the founder of August Scientific and a member of the Science Advisory Team at Solaray. “Our brain cells, known as neurons, may not communicate as well later in life, too,” she adds. To caveat, this decline is completely natural for many—but it still may cause weakened neurological activity and response, which affects cognitive functioning, memory retention, concentration, and focus, Dr. Billes says.
How nutrition and brain health are linked
While there isn’t too much we can do to stop the natural decline in brain health due to age (which is due, in part, to damage from free radicals and oxidative stress, which are byproducts that come with the aging process), we can take some amount of legitimate preventative action by adjusting our daily routines—such as getting more sleep and managing stress—and eating more brain-friendly foods on a consistent basis. These lifestyle changes have been shown to result in better cognitive functioning (as well as decreased inflammation, a happier state of existence, a healthier heart, and so on) as we age.
“Fortunately, science has shown that we can influence how our brain ages and functions by our lifestyle and nutrition,” Dr. Billes says. “Getting regular exercise and adequate sleep, as well as staying mentally active and eating foods with the brain-boosting nutrients we need, can help optimize brain health and function as we age.”
While the brain is able to produce certain nutrients on its own to maintain and optimize functioning and to make sure we’re able to think, remember, and communicate well in our everyday lives, there are some brain-boosting nutrients our bodies need but cannot supply on our own. These are what’s known as essential nutrients, and we must obtain them from food sources.
While Dr. Billes says that eating a variety of nutrients is the best approach for promoting cognitive health and preventing brain disease or decline as we age, some nutrients are particularly powerful when it comes to their longevity- and brain-boosting benefits. Here, the “Big Five” brain-boosting nutrients Dr. Billes recommends as a neuroscientist to keep our brains sharp as we age.
Brain-boosting nutrients, according to a neurologist
1. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
“Omega-3s are the polyunsaturated fats that your brain needs most for optimal health and function during the aging process. This is because low levels of omega-3s have been linked to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease,” says Dr. Billes. “They’re found in fatty fish, nuts, seeds, and certain plant oils, like flaxseed oil.”
Fatty fish (such as salmon, anchovies, sardines, herring, and mackerel) is the strongest source of omega-3 fatty acids, and it offers both DHA and EPA as two forms of omega-3s, both of which are the most powerful kinds for boosting brain health and offering disease protection. Dr. Billes recommends eating fatty fish two to three times a week to keep your brain healthy and sharp. Walnuts, chia seeds, flax seeds all supply ALA, the plant source of omega-3s. Algae oil is plant-based and does have both DHA and EPA omega-3s (which are more bioavailable and potent sources than ALA), so try to incorporate it into your diet if you’re a plant-based eater.
You can also find omega-3s in olives and olive oil. “Using olive oil, which is high in omega-3s, in place of canola oil, is an easy way to get more omega-3s in the diet,” Dr. Billes says. Drizzle it on salad greens and grain bowls, or sear a salmon fillet in olive oil with lemon zest and herbs for a super brain-friendly meal.
2. Electrolytes and B Vitamins
Electrolytes and B vitamins are both important for maintaining healthy hydration and electrolyte levels in the brain and the rest of the body. “Neurons need small amounts of electrolytes, such as sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium to function,” says Dr. Billes. “And B vitamins are important in the neurochemical synthesis of many neurotransmitters.”
When dehydrated, we tend to experience physical lethargy and muscle cramps, but we also have mental lethargy—think brain fog and decreased focus and concentration. In addition to drinking enough water to keep your brain sharp, be sure to also consume plenty of foods with both electrolytes and B vitamins to maintain an optimal balance in hydration levels for brain health. This is especially important post-workout or sweating, as you lose stores and must replenish afterwards. “After all, the brain is made of about 80 percent water, followed by 11 percent fat and eight percent protein. This means that the brain can actually shrink in volume when you’re dehydrated, and in turn won’t function as well when we aren’t drinking enough water,” says Dr. Billes.
You can find both B vitamins and electrolytes in fresh fruits and vegetables, in nuts and seeds, and in certain dairy products like cottage cheese. Avocado, eggs, brown rice, millet, and nutritional yeast are a few other delicious ways to up your B vitamin intake; coconut water, bananas, pickles, olives, and low-sugar sports drinks will all add electrolytes to your diet. And don’t forget to drink plenty of water!
Antioxidants are known to fight free-radical damage and oxidative stress, both of which occur due to the aging process and can lead to higher levels of inflammation, chronic disease risk, and cell damage in the brain, says Dr. Billes. The best way to get enough antioxidants in your diet is by eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Load up on those reds, oranges, yellows, whites, greens, blues, and purples, whether from fresh or frozen sources. In addition to antioxidants, you’ll be reaping other essential nutrients (like vitamin C, B, E, K, copper, magnesium, and so on) and fiber—all of which promote a healthy brain.
“All fruit and vegetables contain vitamins, minerals, and fiber that support a healthy body as well as a sharp brain. Dark leafy greens and berries both stand out for their high levels of antioxidants and ability to counteract cell damage, which occurs over time, as well as vitamins A, E, and C, and minerals, like zinc and selenium,” Dr. Billes says. Fruits and vegetables also tend to be high in water content—particularly zucchini, tomatoes, watermelon, cucumbers, and bell peppers—so you’re getting antioxidants, nutrients, and hydration simultaneously.
Blueberries are a go-to option to use as a topper for Greek yogurt parfaits, oatmeal, and salads, as well as for making chia pudding or homemade granola. You can also combine berries with leafy greens like spinach and kale in green smoothies or vibrant salads (just don’t forget to add some protein and fat, like grilled salmon, avocado, and olive oil).
Speaking of which. “Protein provides the essential amino acids the brain needs to make neurotransmitters,” says Dr. Billies. Amino acids are therefore necessary for brain function and communication, she explains. “When you’re deficient in protein, your brain is unable to work and communicate as well. In extreme cases, this may cause you to experience trouble thinking and speaking clearly, as well as maintaining mental stamina and strength.”
Thus, protein intake is emphasized with age, which is why our protein intake needs tend to increase as we get older. To make sure you’re getting enough, keep a steady stream of protein-rich foods like fatty fish, chicken or turkey breast, eggs, Greek yogurt, soy products like tofu and soybeans, nuts and seeds, beans and lentils, and whole grains in your daily meals.
Choline is one of the best brain-boosting nutrients. “Choline is an essential nutrient for healthy brain function because it is a component in the synthesis of acetylcholine, an important neurotransmitter that supports memory and learning,” says Dr. Billes. Choline is also important for phosphatidylcholine production, which she explains is a phospholipid found in cell membranes that assists in healthy brain function. Choline is most readily available in nutrient-dense foods like eggs, soybeans, fatty fish, liver, red potatoes, and fiber-rich quinoa.
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