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Foods that boost brain function

If we are what we eat, which foods can make us smarter and reduce our risk of dementia and Alzheimer's disease? Lena Beal, MS, a licensed and registered dietitian at Piedmont's Fuqua Heart Center, recommends the following types of food to improve brain function.

It's all about the omega-3s

Omega-3 fatty acids not only protect your ticker, they can also make you smarter. Omega-3s found in flaxseed oil, as well as the omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic (DHA) found in fatty, cold water fish, have been proven to protect against damage to the synapses, which enable learning and memory. Since the body doesn't produce all the DHA we need for good health, look for it in your food.

"Omega-3s make the arteries in the brain healthier and have been shown to boost memory function," says Beal. "In one study, people who took omega-3 supplements made fewer mistakes on a memory test than those in the control group who didn't take the supplements."

While you can take fish oil & supplements to get omega-3s, Beal recommends getting the nutrient the old-fashioned way through your diet.

The best source of omega-3s is fatty fish (sardines, tuna, salmon, mackerel), but you can also find this super-nutrient in walnuts, avocadoes, chia seeds and plant seed oils, like flax, grape seed, canola.

Escape to the

Is there anything the Mediterranean diet can't do? It's consistently ranked as one of the best meal plans for overall health and studies have shown people who adhere to it are 60 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease.

"The data is so strong for this diet," she says. "It consistently comes out on top for heart health, overall health, as well as better cognitive function, memory and alertness." 

The Mediterranean diet includes fish, healthy oils, fruit and legumes, so it's rich in vitamins and minerals that help keep cognitive function sharp.

Stock up on the leafy greens

Go green! Leafy greens like spinach, kale, chard and collards have been shown to slow age-related mental decline by up to 40 percent, thanks to their brain-friendly antioxidants like flavonoids and carotenoids.

Antioxidants for better brain health

Other antioxidant-rich foods that keep your mental function in top shape include:

  • Blueberries

  • Tomatoes

  • Onions

  • Apples with skin on. Apples - particularly the skin - are a top source of quercetin, an antioxidant that protects your brain cells from free radical attacks.

"You want to eat these foods in as close to their natural state as possible," adds Beal.

Embrace the carbs

A low-carbohydrate diet may slim your waistline in the short-term, but it may not make you mentally sharper.

Whole grains are a great source of energy for the brain. Look for unrefined grains, like:

  • Brown rice

  • Barely

  • Quinoa

  • Whole wheat pasta or bread

Health benefits of caffeine

Good news, coffee and tea lovers! Studies have shown caffeine in coffee may reduce your risk of mental decline. In one study, people who drank three cups of coffee a day were 65 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease and dementia.

As an added bonus, theanine in tea is believed to help activate the brain circuit tied to attention span, so sip some unsweetened tea next time you need to focus.

Curb your sweet tooth

Research from the University of California at Los Angeles will make you want to put down the cookies and cake. Frequent consumption of high fructose corn syrup (a form of sugar) slowed brain function, learning and memory. The good news is you can combat the negative effects of sugar by eating foods rich in omega-3s.

Maintain good health as you age: Need to make an appointment with a Piedmont physician? Save time, book online.

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