How to nourish your brain to avoid the D-word

Science suggests around 40% of dementia cases could be preventable, with healthier lifestyle habits one reason why rates of dementia are falling in some countries. Paula Goodyer explains what we can all do to maintain our brain.

By Paula Goodyer

Maintain your brain - what the science says     

Let’s not hold our breath waiting for a pill to keep our brains sharp as we get older. Right now, our best bet is to embrace healthier lifestyle habits - and remind ourselves that most people don’t get dementia.  

Read more on Citro about dementia and cognitive decline, as well as 3 ways to reduce your risk.

The smart diet - how to feed your brain

Eating patterns like the Mediterranean diet or the MIND diet are known for helping protect against cognitive decline and dementia - but what is it about these eating styles that makes a difference? 

One thing they have in common is that they’re based on minimally processed foods.  We’re learning that the more processes a food undergoes between the time it leaves the ground, the tree or the paddock and reaches the plate, the more it contributes to chronic inflammation - and that raises the risk of so many health problems including dementia,” says Ngaire Hobbins, an Accredited Practising Dietitian, specialising in diet and ageing, and the author of  Brain, Body Food and Better Brain Food.

“We hear a lot about the Mediterranean diet because it’s the subject of so much research - but the same benefits probably apply to other traditional eating patterns like a Vietnamese diet, for example,” she adds.

New US research backs her up - it found that plant-based diets like those in China, Japan and India, as well as the Mediterranean diet, lower dementia risk - yet rates of the disease start trending upwards in these countries when western foods displace traditional foods.

Meanwhile, a growing number of studies are linking diets high in ultra processed foods to a greater risk of cognitive decline.

Get your fats right to protect your brain

Healthy fats will help minimise inflammation and protect brain cells from damage, says Ngaire. These include:

  • Oils like extra virgin olive oil that have undergone as little refinement as possible.
  • Omega-3 fats from oily fish, as well as plant sources like walnuts, flax seeds and flax seed oil, canola oil.
  • Monounsaturated fat from nuts, seeds, olives and avocado.

Brighten up your plate with plant-based unprocessed foods

A range of natural colours on your plate from vegetables, fruit and legumes is a sign that you’re capturing a variety of nutrients from different sources.  

“These foods provide our brain cells with the best possible nutrients to protect themselves, including a range of antioxidants to help prevent oxidative stress,” says Ngaire.

“We hear a lot about eating blueberries but it’s not about focussing on one food. The science is clear- single foods or single antioxidants don’t work alone. A combination of many different antioxidants gives the best protection.” 

Filling your plate with different coloured vegetables, eating healthy fats and lots of antioxidants is key.

Find inspiration to add more colour to your plate by reading Citro's healthy recipes:

You can also grow your own microgreens and vegetables to save money.

What about taking supplements to improve memory or brain function?

Supplements are unlikely to do any harm - but so far the evidence suggests that being as physically active as possible and getting nutrients from a healthy whole food diet are the most useful things we can do to protect the brain, Ngaire stresses.

“You also have to be careful that you don’t end up consuming too much of a single nutrient - such as zinc, for example, which can cause an imbalance of other nutrients.

“If you do want to use a supplement, I’d suggest doing it in consultation with your medical team, or have a blood test to check for any deficiencies first.”

Read more on 6 things to know about supplementation as you get older.

The link between muscle and your mind

 There’s a good reason to hang on to your muscles as you get older - there’s growing evidence that losing too much muscle can set us up for dementia, says  Professor Ken Nosaka from the School of Medical and Health Sciences at Western Australia’s Edith Cowan University.

”Losing too much muscle - known as sarcopenia - raises the risk of problems that contribute to dementia. 

“Type 2 diabetes is one and another is metabolic syndrome - a cluster of conditions including high blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist and abnormal cholesterol levels,” he explains. “Most people don’t realise how important muscle is - if we can prevent sarcopenia, we can prevent a lot of dementia.” 

Read more on Citro about the 10 benefits of strength training.

How does regular exercise protect the brain? 

“One way is by producing more of a substance called BDNF (short for brain derived neurotrophic factor) - this helps maintain brain cells and develop new connections between them. Another is by increasing blood flow to the brain,” he says. 

As for whether aerobic exercise like walking, running or cycling has more brain benefits compared to strength training, some studies show that aerobic exercise produces more BDNF - probably because it raises the heart rate.

“But there’s probably not much difference if you’re exercising regularly,” he adds.

 Read more on Citro’s 10 easy lifestyle swaps for longevity gains. You can also read how to stay fit for a fraction of the price.

The power of exercise snacking

People think exercise means going to the gym but we know that small frequent bursts of physical activity throughout the day has a benefit. Sitting for long periods is bad for the brain but if you stand up and do a few exercises or walk a few extra steps each time you go to the toilet, it can be as beneficial as a single longer period of exercise,” he says.

You can even turn the act of sitting down again into a mini work out.

“Each time you sit down - at your desk or on the couch - make a point of lowering yourself into the chair very slowly,” he says.

This muscle movement, called an eccentric contraction, causes front thigh muscles to lengthen as you lower your weight and his studies have found that this type of movement increases muscle strength and muscle mass more than the opposite motion of lifting yourself out of a chair -a movement called a concentric contraction.

 “If you do this 10 times a day you can significantly strengthen leg muscles over time, prevent a decrease in muscle mass with ageing and stimulate the brain,” he adds.

It’s a similar story with going down stairs slowly.

 “People think that going downstairs isn’t as good for you as going upstairs - but again, coming down the stairs has the effect of strengthening leg muscles more.  It’s also more challenging for your brain - you have to be more vigilant coming downstairs than going up. “

Read 8 habits that slow ageing by up to 6 years.

Beyond sudoku - the benefits of later life learning

We often hear that higher education early on in life helps reduce or delay dementia when you’re older -and it’s never been much comfort to anyone who happened to finish school at 15. 

But now, a small but growing number of studies suggest that learning in later life has benefits for cognition too, says Professor James Vickers, Director of the Wicking Dementia Research and Education Centre at the University of Tasmania. 

His 2021 study that looked at the impact of university level learning on 383 people over 50 found that their cognitive skills improved, with the largest improvements on tests of language, verbal learning and memory.

“We can’t say that the evidence is definitive yet, but it’s looking good.  Although you don’t necessarily have to go to university to get a benefit from learning at an older age, you do need to do something complex that makes the brain really work like learning another language for example,” he says.

“Continuing to work can be good too - but only if you’re happy doing it, and if it involves a degree of complexity. Voluntary work can be beneficial too but preferably doing something different that you’re not familiar with.”

What about sudoku or brain training games and apps?

“Anything is better than nothing but for a real benefit it’s best to do something more complex,” he says.

Higher education at either a younger or older age isn’t a guarantee that you’ll never run into problems with cognition or dementia as you get older, but it is thought to build what’s called cognitive reserve, Professor Vickers explains.

“This means that even if you experience some trauma to the brain, like an injury, a stroke, Parkinson’s disease or dementia, for example, your brain can somehow compensate and find ways to function better for longer.”

Read more about learning a language or playing complex card games like bridge. And have fun playing Citro’s free online brain games.

The information on this page is general information and should not be used to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease. Do not use the information found on this page as a substitute for professional health care advice. Any information you find on this page or on external sites which are linked to on this page should be verified with your professional health care provider.

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