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.
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.
The Western diet of refined calories and sugary soft drinks leaves most of us “starving for micronutrients,” says Bruce Ames, MD, a prominent researcher in the area of micronutrients and their effect on late-life diseases. “Brain decay, DNA damage—things that normally come with aging—are accelerated when you’re deficient in a micronutrient,” he adds. Although not substitutes for a healthy diet and regular exercise, key supplements can help. “Even a small increase in brain function—3 percent to 5 percent—can have a major effect on day-to-day functioning,” says Teitelbaum.
B vitamins. In a six-year study of 514 people, more than 14 percent were deficient in vitamin B12—and they had the fastest cognitive decline. “The energy systems in the brain are dependent on the B vitamins,” Teitelbaum explains. Dose: Take a high-potency B complex (at least 50 mg) with 200 mg magnesium, which helps B vitamins work, he says.
Curcumin. This antioxidant found in turmeric, the yellow curry spice, was shown in one study to reduce the amount of amyloid plaques in the brain—a telltale sign of Alzheimer’s—by a significant 30 percent. But simply eating more curry won’t do the trick. To experience benefits, use a proprietary absorption-enhanced form called BCM-95 in a supplement, says Teitelbaum. Another option: Choose a supplement with piperine, a derivative of black pepper that has been shown in studies to increase curcumin absorption by 2,000 percent. Dose: 750 mg curcumin and 2–5 mg piperine daily; Teitelbaum recommends 1,500 mg of the BCM-95 version.
Vitamin D. A 2009 study found vitamin D helps curcumin melt away plaques by optimizing white blood cells’ clean-up activity, Teitelbaum says. The odds of cognitive impairment may be as much as 42 percent higher in people who are deficient in vitamin D, according to research presented at ICAD—and almost 400 percent higher in people who are severely deficient. Dose: Up to 2,000 IU daily, or more if recommended by your health care provider after blood testing.
Acetyl-L-carnitine and alpha-lipoic acid. Research shows this pair, taken together, helps cognition by reducing mental fatigue. That’s because they minimize damage to mitochondria, which supply energy to the body’s cells—including those in the brain. Dose: 1,000 mg acetyl-L-carnitine with 400 mg alpha-lipoic acid, says Ames.
Because Alzheimer's disease (AD) affects 5.3 million (or about 13 percent) Americans over age 65 most people worry at some point about developing it. “Some common yet reversible conditions can mimic the beginnings of ‘abnormal’ aging,” says Larry McCleary, MD. These include depression, severe stress, sleep deprivation, problems with blood sugar regulation, and even medication-related symptoms. Still, if you sometimes forget names, don’t be overly concerned, he says. To be sure, here are common signs that it could be AD—or another type of dementia.
-Having difficulty learning new skills
-Repeating phrases or stories in the same conversation
-Having difficulty keeping track of what happens on a daily basis
-Experiencing more than occasional word-finding difficulties
The Alzheimer’s Association offers a checklist of ten warning signs on their website.