While we certainly can’t control everything that happens to our physical and mental health, science is clear that there is a connection between what we eat and brain health. Certain foods are linked to supporting brain health while other foods are linked to increasing the risk of cognitive decline and dementia. This is especially timely to consider due to the fact that the number of people in the U.S. who are living with dementia is on the rise. (Part of this is because we’re living longer these days.) In the U.S., 22 percent of adults ages 85 to 89 have dementia and 33 percent of adults aged 90 or older have been diagnosed.
However, eating in a way that supports memory is actually easier than you may think. There are thousands and thousands of foods packed with nutrients that support brain health. Not sure where to start? Keep reading for tips from a neuropsychologist and a brain health dietitian, including what they say is the number one food to start eating to support your memory.
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What To Eat To Support Your Memory
In terms of the best way to eat if you want to preserve your memory well into old age, Dr. Raphael Wald, PsyD, a neuropsychologist with Marcus Neuroscience Institute, part of Baptist Health at Bethesda Hospital East, recommends the Mediterranean diet. “The Mediterranean diet is often considered the healthiest diet for the brain,” he says. This way of eating emphasizes fruits, vegetables, legumes, fish, nuts and olive oil, and limits sweets, red meat and processed foods.
One particular reason why Dr. Wald says the Mediterranean diet is so good for memory support is because it prioritizes foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as fish, olive oil and nuts. “[These types of fats] help the brain function in the most efficient way possible,” he says. Katie Lounsberry, RD, a registered dietitian at Providence Mission Hospital specializing in brain health, agrees. “Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to protect against cognitive decline and memory impairment in older adults,” she says. “Current research suggests that consuming foods high in omega-3 fatty acids like fish and nuts could be a useful strategy for supporting brain health and memory.”
With this in mind, what food is the absolute very best for brain health? While all the foods that are part of the Mediterranean Diet support the brain in some way, Dr. Wald says that if he was hard-pressed to pick one to prioritize, it would be salmon. “Salmon is one of, if not the healthiest, brain foods that fits within the Mediterranean diet and is loaded with healthy fats,” he says.
Scientific studies back this up. One study found that people who ate fish twice a week scored higher on brain health tests and had more gray matter in their brains (a type of tissue crucial for daily functioning) than people who ate fish less than twice a week.
If you don’t like fish or if you follow a vegan diet, there’s another omega-3-rich food Dr. Wald says to prioritize: nuts. He says he loves nuts because they’re a healthy snack that doesn’t require any cooking or prep; you can just eat them as is. “Unsalted, mixed nuts are my go-to snack for any time of the day: morning, afternoon or evening,” he says, adding that they provide both protein and healthy fats, which provide the body with energy. Of all the nuts, he says that walnuts are the best for memory support because they’re especially high in omega-3s. In one study, people ages 67 to 75 who ate 15 grams of walnuts a day showed better cognitive function and memory compared to a control group who didn’t eat walnuts every day.
Foods To Avoid To Keep Your Memory Sharp
Just as important as knowing what foods to prioritize to support memory health is knowing what foods to minimize or avoid. “Frequent consumption of foods such as refined grains, red and processed meats, and sugar-sweetened beverages increases our risk for type 2 diabetes, which is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s and dementia,” Lounsberry warns. She adds that alcohol consumption is well-known to have negative impacts on memory too.
Dr. Wald says that regularly consuming sugar as well as artificial sweeteners increases the risk of dementia. So, if you want to eat with memory preservation in mind, it’s best to minimize sodas (including diet soda), coffee drinks sweetened with syrups or sweeteners, and sugary pastries. It’s also important to know that sugar can creep up in places you might not expect it, like ketchup, pasta sauces, yogurt and instant oatmeal.
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If your diet has long included foods high in sugar, artificial sweeteners, refined grains and meat, and following the Mediterranean diet would be a major shift, here’s the good news: Both Dr. Wald and Lounsberry say that it’s never too late to change. “It’s always worth it to make a change to improve your brain health through nutrition—regardless of your age or your past diet habits. While we can’t necessarily undo damage caused by a lack of good nutrition in the past, we can always make changes that benefit our future selves,” Lounsberry says.
By prioritizing foods high in omega-3 fatty acids and other staples of the Mediterranean diet and minimizing overly processed foods high in sugar or artificial sweeteners, you’ll be taking a major step in doing what you can to preserve your memory well into old age. Eating in a way that will keep your mind sharp for decades to come? Sounds like a no-brainer!
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