Gut Health

Five foods that can help reduce your risk of dementia

April 8, 2024

Click here to see Brain Health advisor and Professor of Nutrition, Jeremy Spencer, talk to us about the five foods that can help your brain to stay sharp, feel great and reduce the risk of cognitive decline. 

Let’s take a look at these five foods in more depth to see just how they do it … 

1. Flavonoids

Brightly coloured fruits and vegetables, such as berries and plums, are bursting with flavonoids, plant chemicals that boost the flow of blood, nutrients and oxygen to the brain – something that’s been linked to a reduction in dementia.  

One study of middle-aged men and women found those who ate the most flavonoid-rich foods were almost 20% less likely to have memory problems as they got older. 

Other good sources of flavonoids include green tea, onions and leeks. Apples and pears are good too, especially if you don’t peel them before tucking in. Red wine (in moderation) is an option, as is dark chocolate.  

However, it is important to remember that flavonoids are only good for us if we eat them regularly. Sporadic eating is not enough to accrue the benefits. But their biggest secret? Flavonoids are poorly absorbed and therefore play a vital role in feeding our gut bacteria, which in turn is critical for our brain health. 

2. Oily fish

Oily fish (think SMASH – Salmon, Mackerel, Anchovies, Sardines and Herring), are a particularly rich source of omega-3 fatty acids. These healthy fats help make connections between brain cells.

“That process of making more connections more efficiently is, to our best understanding, the mechanism by which we remember things, by which we acquire new knowledge and how we sort of experience the world,” says Professor Spencer.

Research has found that people who eat more oily fish have a lower risk of dementia, however it’s important to remember the 1:1 ratio. Omega 3 levels need to be raised and Omega 6 fatty acids, which are inflammatory, need to be lowered as part of a healthy diet. 

There’s another reason why fish is sometimes called brain food. A study of older people in the US found fish-eaters had bigger brains. Those who consumed more fish had more grey matter in several parts of the brain, including the hippocampus, the brain’s memory hub and one of the areas damaged in Alzheimer’s disease. Just one portion of baked or grilled fish a week could make a difference, said lead researcher Dr Cyrus Raji, of Washington University School of Medicine.

Dr Raji told Brain Health Network: “More grey matter = more brain health and reserve against the neurodegeneration from dementias such as Alzheimer’s.”

3. B vitamins

These are found in all sorts of foods including whole grains and leafy green vegetables. B vitamins play a critical role in the release of energy in the brain cells and enabling the action of neurotransmitters. For, as we get older between the ages of 40-60, we lose half of the energy molecule NAD+ which has a direct influence on key cellular functions including DNA repair. It’s therefore advisable to take a Vitamin B supplement called NMN ( Niacin MonoNucleotide) to restore the levels of NAD+. 

4. Eggs

“Our body can make small amounts of choline but we really need to get it from our diet”, says Professor Spencer, and eggs are one of the best dietary sources.

This micronutrient is one of the building blocks of the fats in the membranes that surround our brain cells and is important for memory and learning. Studies have shown that people with higher levels of choline do better in a range of mental tests, including memory tests, attention and the ability to switch between tasks.

In addition, choline not only makes acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that tells our muscles when to contract, but when combined with Omega-3 it can increase brain uptake of DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid) from the fish oil, which is essential for brain development and function. 

5. Green tea

Green tea contains L-theanine, an amino acid and compound that is said to support in thinking, sleep and relaxation. Research also suggests that L-theanine can improve the ability to focus when tackling complex tasks. 

Another ingredient of green tea called epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) breaks up tangles of tau, one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s. EGCG doesn’t make it into the brain very well but researchers are hunting for similar compounds that could be turned into Alzheimer’s drugs.

Other types of tea seem to have brain benefits, too. When researchers tracked the health of 370,000 Britons for nine years, they found tea-drinkers were 16% less likely to develop dementia.  Three cuppas – of any sort – a day seemed to provide the most protection.

So, what’s the best way to get these foods? You can get most of them from the Mediterranean diet but consumption needs to be maintained over a prolonged period of time to produce the desired health benefits and cut your odds of dementia by a quarter.

For more articles on how nutrition can positively impact our brain health, visit our nutrition and gut-health guiding pillars here.

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