Food for Thought: Nutrition for Cognitive Health & Increased Cognitive Reserve

When I was little, my Nana used to tell me that fish was ‘brain food’; if I ate a lot of fish and studied hard, I would very smart. Once again, 60-something years later, research has proved her right!

We haven’t found a pill or diet shown to prevent cognitive decline. Yet research shows that an important strategy is to eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. Nutritional research indicates that protein from plant sources and fish as well as deriving fat from olive oil or canola, rather than animal based or saturated fats is beneficial to cognitive health.

Within this dietary approach, there are specific foods that are especially high in healthful components: omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, and antioxidants, which are known to support brain health.

Incorporating many of these foods into a healthy diet on a regular basis can improve brain health and that can translate into better mental function. Research shows that the best brain foods are those that also protect the heart and blood vessels, including:
•       Green, Leafy Vegetables.
Leafy greens such as kale, spinach, collards, and broccoli are rich in brain-healthy nutrients like vitamin K, lutein, folate, and beta carotene. Research also suggests these plant-based foods may help slow cognitive decline.
•       Fatty Fish.
Fatty fish are abundant sources of omega-3 fatty acids, healthy unsaturated fats that have been linked to lower blood levels of beta-amyloid—the protein that forms damaging clumps in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. The recommendation is to eat fish at least twice a week, but choose varieties that are low in mercury, such as salmon, cod, tuna, and pollack. For people who don’t love fish, there are omega-3 supplements and terrestrial omega-3 sources such as flaxseeds, avocados, and walnuts.
•       Berries. Flavonoids, the natural plant pigments that give berries their brilliant hues, also help improve memory, research shows. A study published in Annals of Neurology, researchers found that women who consumed two or more servings of strawberries and blueberries each week delayed memory decline by up to two-and-a-half years.
•       Tea and coffee. The caffeine in your morning cup of coffee or tea might offer more than just a short-term concentration boost. In a 2014 study published in The Journal of Nutrition, participants with higher caffeine consumption scored better on tests of mental function. Caffeine might also help solidify new memories, according to other research. Investigators at Johns Hopkins University asked participants to study a series of images and then take either a placebo or a 200-milligram caffeine tablet. More members of the caffeine group were able to correctly identify the images on the following day.
•       Walnuts.
Nuts are excellent sources of protein and healthy fats, and one type of nut in particular might also improve memory. A 2015 study from UCLA linked higher walnut consumption to improved cognitive test scores. Walnuts are high in a type of omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which helps lower blood pressure and protects arteries. That’s good for both the heart and brain.
The goal is to increase our cognitive reserve- the extra resourcefulness our brains use to avoid cognitive decline.

This is an important concept that is crucial to the understanding of cognitive health. cognitive reserve has been described as the brain’s ability to improvise and find alternate ways of getting the job done. New neuronal pathways develop and make added recourses available to cope with challenges. Cognitive reserve is developed by a lifetime of education and curiosity to help your brain better cope with any failures or declines it faces.

The concept of cognitive reserve originated in the late 1980s, when researchers described individuals with no apparent symptoms of dementia who were nonetheless found at autopsy to have brain changes consistent with advanced Alzheimer’s disease. These individuals did not show symptoms of the disease while they were alive because they had a large enough cognitive reserve to offset the damage and continue to function as usual.

Since then, research has shown that people with greater cognitive reserve are better able to stave off symptoms of degenerative brain changes associated with dementia or other neurological disease, such as Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, or a stroke. A more robust cognitive reserve can also help people function better for longer when they experience stressful life events, surgery, or toxins in the environment. Such circumstances demand extra effort from the brain. When the brain cannot cope, the individual can become confused, develop delirium, or show signs of disease. Therefore, an important goal is to build and sustain cognitive reserve by taking the following steps:

STEP 1: Eat a healthy, plant-based diet

STEP 2: Exercise regularly

STEP 3: Get enough sleep

STEP 4: Manage your stress

STEP 5: Nurture social contacts

Mahalo for All You Do!

For more information:

What is Cognitive Reserve, https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/what-is-cognitive-reserve

The Cognitive Reserve Hypothesis: A Longitudinal Examination of Age-Associated Declines in Reasoning and Processing Speed, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3230274/