Dementia is not a disease but a general term that describes the loss of brain function. There are many types of dementia, but Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form, affecting more than 35 million people worldwide.
Dementia is progressive, and it begins when brain cells are damaged. Once the cells can’t communicate with one another, the body can’t function properly, and behavior, movement and thought are negatively affected.
While treatment of dementia depends on its cause, there is no cure to halt its advancement. To date, clinical studies have been too varied in scope, duration and methodology to draw any relevant conclusions about dementia prevention, but scientists continue to examine concomitant diseases and other risk factors as they impact brain health.
Risk factors such as genetics and age can’t be changed, but there is some evidence to support the theory that proper nutrition and lifestyle habits may play a role in sustaining the healthy brain.
It should come as no surprise that what we eat affects our brain. Clearly, food and its nutrients, or lack thereof, influence our brain and, subsequently our moods, sleep patterns and energy levels. It’s also important to eat nutrient-rich foods, because the brain requires between 20 and 30 percent of total calorie consumption for baseline function.
So, what should you eat for mental acuity and brain health?
Recent studies suggest that polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) and, more specifically, omega-3 PUFA, play an important role in preventing cognitive decline. Interestingly, the human brain contains high amounts of PUFA, and while fatty acids in the brain decline with age, observational studies have shown that those enjoying diets including omega-3-rich cold water fish may experience neuroprotective benefits and lower their risk of dementia. To harness the power of fish, enjoy salmon, tuna, herring, sardines and cod in four-ounce portions two to three times weekly.
Blueberries also may help stave off dementia, since they’ve been shown to reduce oxidative stress. Oxidative damage is the calling card of Alzheimer’s disease. Elevated markers of oxidation may even be apparent in tissue, preempting disease symptoms. One cup of blueberries, fresh or frozen, will do the trick.
The B family of vitamins, namely B6, B12, folate and choline, play an important role in proper neurological function. While the relationship between these vitamins and dementia is still unclear, it wouldn’t hurt to have second helpings of leafy green vegetables, beans, legumes and seeds.
Of course, I’d be remiss not to emphasize the importance of regular exercise. For those over age 65, adding as few as two strength-training sessions to your weekly exercise routine may reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s by half. Quality sleep is also important, as is stress management and mental stimulation. In addition to solving crossword puzzles and playing Scrabble, try eating dinner with your non-dominant hand a few nights each week. Varying your habits will create new and healthy brain pathways.
Tina Ruggiero, M.S., R.D., L.D., is a nutrition expert and award-winning author. Her newest book is “The Truly Healthy Family Cookbook.” Find Tina at www.Tina