I had forgotten that June was Brain Health Awareness Month. And then I came across several interesting research papers that say it’s never too late – or early – to learn.
According to Dr. Louise Dye, professor of nutrition and behavior at the University of Leeds in England, our brain undergoes major changes during our lifetime, especially when we are very young and very old.
Children’s brains increase their mental capacity as they grow and learn, Dye says. During our middle years, our goal is to maintain our brain function with good habits such as getting enough sleep and good stress management.
After age 50, a frightening condition called “age-related cognitive decline” can occur, Dye said in a podcast sponsored by the Cranberry Institute (cranberryinstitute.org). “But it doesn’t happen to everyone,” she adds.
OK, I am. What can we do to preserve our brain throughout our lives?
Much of the answer lies in our lifestyle, Dye says. This includes our diet and physical activity, as well as how we deal with stress.
Tea, for example, contains natural substances called polyphenols that help us relax. In fact, over 8,000 types of polyphenols in plant foods have been identified, each with specific health benefits.
Anthocyanins — the polyphenols that give fruits and vegetables color — have been shown to preserve verbal memory, Dye says. Basically, that means they help us remember what we’re doing. These substances found in blueberries, strawberries, cranberries and grape juice also help the brain to make decisions. “Children who eat these foods can concentrate better,” she adds. “Science proves it.”
According to some studies, resveratrol, another type of polyphenol found in peanuts, cocoa, red and purple grapes, and grape juice, is a powerful antioxidant that may protect against inflammation and certain types of dementia.
Of course, says Dye, there is no cure for dementia. But we can do a lot to help prevent it. Obese people, for example, might be more likely to develop a decline in mental function as they age, she says. And people with type 2 diabetes are more likely to develop a condition called vascular dementia.
His recommendations? “Eat a rainbow. Lots of colorful fruits and vegetables can help preserve memory. Exercise. It helps curb insulin resistance which can lead to diabetes. And reduce your weight if you are overweight.
Do “cognitive exercises” to keep your brain engaged. “Socialize. Learn new things. Be engaged in your environment and with others,” she continues. “All of these play a role (in brain health).”
Science proves that what we ingest really matters.
“It’s a question of balance, everything in moderation and nothing excessive. Add variety to your food and variety to your life,” says Dye.
I think it’s something I want to remember.
Barbara Intermill is a dietitian nutritionist and unionized columnist. She is the author of “Quinn-Essential Nutrition: The Uncomplicated Science of Eating”. Email him at [email protected]