Stacey Colino

Wouldn't it be great if simply eating could keep your brain young? Well, good news: New research sheds light on how certain vitamins and other nutrients may keep your memory sharp and your brain agile -- and ward off dementia -- as you get older. “The key is to try to get these nutrients from whole foods whenever possible, because they can act synergistically,” says Paula Bickford, a doctor of pharmacology and professor in the department of neurosurgery and brain repair at the University of South Florida College of Medicine.

So which vitamins and nutrients have the most promise for keeping your brain young?

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

French researchers found the lower your intake of omega-3 fatty acids, the higher your risk of suffering cognitive decline.

How they keep your brain young:

“Omega-3 fatty acids protect the brain against oxidative stress [damage generated by unstable molecules called free radicals]," explains Bickford. In addition, "nerve tissue uses omega-3 fatty acids as the building blocks for cells," says Bickford, and omega-3’s help with signaling within and between nerve cells, which helps your brain function properly.

What to eat:

salmon, tuna, lake trout, sardines, anchovies, walnuts, canola oil, flaxseeds.

Vitamins C, D and E

Research from the Netherlands suggests that eating a diet rich in vitamin E may reduce the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. A South African study found that older adults with dementia had lower blood levels of vitamin C. Finally, a study at the University of Manchester in the U.K. found that middle-aged and older adults with lower blood levels of vitamin D performed less well on cognitive function tests.

How they keep your brain young:

Because these vitamins have antioxidant properties, they can protect the brain from free radical damage. Plus, “having antioxidants in your diet helps reduce low-grade inflammation in your cells and clogging of arteries, which would compromise blood flow to the brain,” says Joy Dubost, a doctor of food science, registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the Institute of Food Technologists.

What to eat:

For vitamin C:

orange juice, red peppers, papaya, strawberries, broccoli, citrus fruits.

For vitamin D:

salmon, halibut, fortified milks, fortified cereals, eggs.

For vitamin E:

fortified cereals, sunflower seeds, almonds, spinach and other leafy greens, canola oil.

B Vitamins

Researchers from the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago found that older adults with higher blood levels of vitamin B12 showed slower rates of cognitive decline. Meanwhile, research from the University of California, Los Angeles found that low folate levels were associated with higher levels of cognitive decline among high-functioning adults in their 70s.

How they keep your brain young:

No one knows exactly how these B vitamins help, “but there are many hypotheses," says Christy Tangney, a doctor of nutrition and associate professor at Rush. One is that suboptimal levels of B12 can lead to problems in your body's ability to synthesize brain chemicals and maintain your brain's network of nerves. “Another is that a deficiency of either folate or B12 can lead to a buildup of homocysteine [an amino acid in the blood], which is toxic to the blood vessels in the brain and causes damage to neurons [which can lead to cognitive decline],” explains Tangney.

What to eat:

For vitamin B12:

beef, shellfish, organ meats, salmon, fortified cereals.

For folate:

fortified cereals, beans, broccoli, spinach, okra, papaya, enriched pastas.  

Stacey Colino has written for The Washington Post health section and many national magazines, including Newsweek, Real Simple, Woman's Day, Self, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Parenting, Sports Illustrated and Ladies' Home Journal.


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