You’re at the market when you run into a former colleague—and suddenly you can’t remember her name. Should you be worried? Probably not, according to Larry McCleary, MD, author of The Brain Trust Program (Penguin, 2007), who says mild, nonprogressive memory loss is commonly part of aging. So too is a slowdown in the visual part of your brain, so you may find you don’t notice things on the periphery as quickly—like that car that just turned into your lane, out of nowhere! (More severe memory problems may be a sign of disease, according to a new study published in Neurology.) Well-established research shows regular exercise and a vibrant social life both support cognitive health. Eating well and taking key supplements can also help increase your brain’s resilience—at any age.

Nosh for your noggin

Optimal brain performance begins with good nutrition. Start with what not to eat, including the usual suspects: refined carbs and high-fructose corn syrup. When these empty foods bind with proteins, they produce free radicals that damage cells, says McCleary, and “these changes literally increase how fast your cells age.” In contrast, researchers recently found that people reduce their risk of developing mild cognitive impairment—a condition worse than normal aging but less severe than Alzheimer’s disease—by eating a Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes vegetables, fish, and healthy fats.

Fish. “Fish—especially cold-water fish [such as wild salmon or sardines] with plenty of long-chain omega-3 fats—are brain food,” McCleary says. Research backs omega-3s’ brain benefits: a recent Spanish study of 304 elderly adults found less cognitive impairment among those who had the highest intake of fish or omega-3 fatty acids (DHA and EPA). Eat omega-3–rich fish three times a week or take 2,000 mg daily of a high-quality fish oil, says holistic physician Jacob Teitelbaum, MD, coauthor of Beat Sugar Addiction Now! (Fair Winds, 2010).

Multicolored vegetables. Deeply colored plant foods contain a beneficial array of nutrients. Spinach, for example, is rich in antioxidant beta-carotene and vitamins C and K, while hot peppers have anti-inflammatory capsaicin—all of which protect brain cells, Teitelbaum says.

Tea. In a large 14-year study presented in July at the International Conference on Alzheimer’s Disease (ICAD), people who consumed tea—even just 5 to 10 times a year—had significantly less cognitive decline (from 17–37 percent) than those who drank none. Only people who drank coffee five times a week showed a similar (20 percent) decline in risk, so researchers believe the protective effect is unlikely to be related to caffeine (coffee contains two to three times as much caffeine as tea). More research is needed.