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Dr. Brynna Connor, MD
Dr. Brynna Connor
Healthcare Ambassador at NorthWestPharmacy.com

Nutrition

Superfoods To Preserve and Enhance Memory (Part 12 of my Superfoods series)

August 18, 2023
Superfoods

The things you eat help fuel both your body and your brain. Although your diet can’t completely prevent issues like memory loss or dementia, certain foods and drinks can serve as healthy choices that keep your mind sharp as you get older. Additionally, eating other types of foods may increase your risk of developing neurological conditions that affect the way your mind works.

Making healthy food choices — and, in particular, eating more superfoods that contain substances known to boost brain health — may be a good way to lower your chances of experiencing dementia or other conditions.

Memory Loss: A Primer

Memory loss can have many different causes, including medication, stroke, a brain infection, depression, heavy alcohol use, vitamin deficiencies, or a head injury. Additionally, different forms of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease, are among the most common causes of memory issues, especially in older adults.

You can’t change some risk factors for memory loss — you can’t stop yourself from getting older or change your genetics, for instance. However, some causes of memory problems are within your control. Experts recommend healthy lifestyle changes such as eating a nutrient-filled diet, increasing your levels of physical activity, and getting enough sleep as ways to help treat memory loss or prevent future memory problems.

Superfoods for Better Memory

Certain foods may minimize inflammation and protect against damage, which may, in turn, help prevent some of the brain changes that can lead to dementia. Some superfoods may also reduce your risk of other chronic health conditions like heart disease or diabetes that can lead to conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.

To help keep your mind healthy, make the following foods a part of your regular diet.

Fatty Fish

Your brain tissue tends to degrade as you get older. However, fatty or oily fish may help slow down these processes and minimize signs of aging in your brain.

What counts as fatty fish? Look to salmon, striped bass, bluefin tuna, mackerel, whitefish, herring, sardines, and anchovies for your superfood boost. The protective effects from fatty fish are likely due to omega-3 fatty acids (molecules needed by many different types of tissues in order to function properly).

People who eat higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids tend to have larger areas of gray matter — the parts of the brain responsible for memory and other types of thinking processes. Additionally, some studies show that a person’s memory tends to improve when they take omega-3 supplements, although not all studies have reported these effects.

Walnuts

According to an ancient belief, walnuts are good for your brain because they look somewhat like this organ. As it turns out, there may be some truth to this idea.

Walnuts have some of the highest levels of omega-3 fatty acids — one serving of walnuts has more of this nutrient than most types of fish, making this superfood a great choice if you want to get the brain-boosting benefits of omega-3’s.

Animal studies have found that walnuts assist with memory, learning, anxiety, and movement. Human studies have also found that people who eat more walnuts have improved memory and thinking capabilities.

Don’t like walnuts? No problem. Some other types of nuts, including hazelnuts, almonds, and pistachios, are also nutritious options that may improve the health of your mind.

Leafy Green Vegetables

Leafy green vegetables like spinach, arugula, kale, collard greens, Swiss chard, and bok choy are highlighted on nearly every list of superfoods, and for good reason. These veggies are packed with nutrients that are essential for many different processes in your brain and body.

In one study, researchers collected data from nearly 1,000 adults between the ages of 58 and 99. They gathered information related to diet and cognitive decline (the memory, thinking, and concentration problems that may arise with age). They found that the more leafy green vegetables a person ate, the less likely that person was to experience cognitive decline. This difference was striking; those who ate the highest amounts of leafy green vegetables had brains that were essentially 11 years younger compared to those who ate very small amounts of these foods.

Based on these results, the researchers recommended consuming at least one serving of leafy green vegetables each day to help prevent cognitive decline.

Beets

Beets may also promote brain health. These veggies contain a lot of nitrates, which are important for keeping your blood vessels dilated and improving blood flow. Better blood flow in your brain means more nutrients for your brain cells, allowing them to work like they’re supposed to.

In one study, researchers fed participants either a low-nitrate diet or a high-nitrate diet that included beetroot juice for breakfast and a salad with beets for dinner. After just a couple of days, the participants who ate beets had much better blood flow in their brains, including in parts of the brains important for memory and other thinking tasks.

Superfoods

Berries

Strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries — these superfood fruits contain a burst of antioxidants that help protect your brain tissue from age-related damage that can lead to dementia.

For example, berries have high levels of a certain type of antioxidant called anthocyanin. These molecules are dark red, blue, or purple pigments that can lower blood pressure levels and boost heart health, in addition to improving your brain function. They also have other anti-inflammatory substances, such as caffeic acid, quercetin, and tannin.

Researchers have found that multiple types of berries can help improve brain function. For example, several studies have reported that eating blueberries can help with multiple aspects of memory, including short-term memory, long-term memory, and spatial memory (the type of memory that helps you recall locations and routes).

Grapes

Red grapes are widely considered a superfood because of one super ingredient: resveratrol. This molecule can help prevent damage in the brain, block inflammation, and slow down aging in brain tissues, helping prevent cognitive decline.

Many animal studies have found that consuming resveratrol in late middle age can help boost both memory and mood.

Research in humans has also identified brain-boosting properties of resveratrol. Multiple studies have found that resveratrol can improve memory and other cognitive abilities, support the health of blood vessels within the brain, and reverse aging in the brain by 10 years. Resveratrol may also be able to block some of the processes that cause Alzheimer’s disease, including unusual metabolism in brain cells and buildup of abnormal proteins.

While many of these studies were based on resveratrol supplements, some research supports the idea that various forms of grapes may also help promote a healthy brain. Studies using grape juice, freeze-dried grape powder, and grape seed extract capsules have found that grape consumption leads to less forgetfulness, reduced anxiety and depression, and, in some cases, improved skills related to language, multitasking, and motor skills.

Whole Grains

Your brain may function better long-term when you swap out simple carbohydrates like white bread, pasta, and sugar for complex carbohydrates, including whole grains like whole-wheat bread, brown rice, wild rice, oatmeal, barley, and quinoa.

Any type of carbohydrate can provide your cells with fuel. However, your body takes longer to break down complex carbohydrates. Unlike some other tissues in the body, your brain can’t store carbohydrates to use later. This means that your brain cells need to absorb sugar on an ongoing basis. When you eat whole grains, your body provides a slow and steady stream of fuel to your brain. This helps your brain function better compared to getting short, quick bursts of sugar.

Whole grains also contain a lot of folate (vitamin B9), a nutrient known to support your ability to remember.

Some research has found that those who eat fewer whole grains are more likely to experience inflammation and cognitive decline. Supplementing your meals with grains and whole-wheat products may help keep your brain sharp for longer.

Coffee

The caffeine found in coffee and tea may do more than give you a jolt of energy in the morning — it may also help your brain function at its best.

Some research has found that caffeine can boost memory. For example, a study from researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that people had an improved ability to remember for at least 24 hours after taking a caffeine supplement. Research has also found that caffeine can improve memory in the early morning hours for young adults.

The right amount of coffee may also help prevent conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. One study found that middle-aged people who drank a few cups of coffee per day were 65% less likely to have dementia later in life. It is possible to have too much of a good thing, however. High amounts of coffee consumption — more than six cups per day — can actually increase your risk of dementia by 53%. Stick to moderate amounts of coffee for optimal brain health.

Turmeric

This yellow spice, often used in curry, contains an antioxidant called curcumin. Turmeric, as well as supplements containing curcumin, may be a good idea if you’re worried about worsening memory.

Curcumin is able to pass through the blood–brain barrier and enter your brain. There, it may help prevent the formation of abnormal protein clumps, which may be a cause of Alzheimer’s. Curcumin can also raise levels of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF. Problems with memory and learning sometimes occur when BDNF levels fall too low, so curcumin may help protect these brain functions.

Superfoods

Diets To Improve Your Memory

Following certain food plans that contain superfoods may also help with cognition.

The Mediterranean diet, known to protect against many types of chronic health conditions, may also be good for your brain. Research has found that this diet, which emphasizes plant-based foods, whole grains, seafood, and olive oil, can strengthen your memory. People who follow this diet more closely are less likely to experience dementia and other thinking issues that sometimes come with age.

Experts have also developed another diet that combines the Mediterranean diet with DASH, an eating plan designed to help reduce high blood pressure. This new diet, called the Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND), encourages people to focus on eating 10 different types of foods, many of which are superfoods. To follow the MIND diet, stick to this basic plan:

  • Whole grains — At least three servings per day
  • Leafy green vegetables — Six or more servings each week
  • Other vegetables — At least one serving each day
  • Berries — At least two servings per week
  • Fish — One or more servings per week
  • Chicken, turkey, or other poultry — Two servings each week
  • Beans — Three servings per week
  • Nuts — Five servings per week
  • Wine — One or fewer glasses each day
  • Olive oil

It’s not entirely clear why the Mediterranean diet and MIND diet can help with memory, but the immune system is likely involved. Foods in these diets tend to be anti-inflammatory, helping minimize inflammation that can lead to memory problems. These diets may also encourage the growth of healthy bacteria in your gut, which send signals to your brain.

Foods To Avoid for Better Cognition

Just as certain superfoods go above and beyond in helping and protecting your brain, some other foods can have the opposite effect.

Those who follow a “Western diet” — that is, the typical things consumed by many Americans as well as those from other Western countries — are more likely to experience cognitive decline and dementia. In particular, eating a lot of high-fat, high-sugar foods can have harmful effects on your brain. Eating too much salt can also have similar effects, increasing your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Eating more whole foods and staying away from processed packaged foods may help your brain function at its best.

Putting It All Together

When it comes to brain health, you are what you eat. Consuming heavy, unhealthy foods can slow down your memory, but choosing foods with brain-boosting nutrients can help you remember better today as well as decrease your risk of developing conditions like dementia in the future.

Articles authored by Dr. Connor are intended to facilitate awareness about health and wellness matters generally and are not a substitute for professional medical attention or advice from your own healthcare practitioner, which is dependent on your detailed personal medical condition and history. You should always speak with your own qualified healthcare practitioner about any information in any articles you may read here before choosing to act or not act upon such information.