"Alzheimer's was the furthest thing from my mind," Julie Gregory told The New York Times after taking a DNA test for the disease at 55. "I never thought I was at risk. When I saw my results, I was terrified." As it turns out, Gregory was carrying two copies of gene variant ApoE4, which is strongly linked to Alzheimer's, a progressive neurodegenerative disease. In addition to memory loss, those with the disease become unable to recognize family members, have trouble forming thoughts, and lose overall functioning in their bodies. It's a deeply emotionally taxing change that affects not only the patient but also those around them.
Every 65 seconds, someone in the United States will develop the disease, and by 2050, it's estimated that nearly 14 million people will have it. There's no singular way to prevent it, either. According to Ríona Mulcahy, medical consultant to the Alzheimer's Disease & Nutrition trial at the Nutrition Research Centre Ireland, School of Health Science, Alzheimer's can be caused by a number of factors, age being the largest (your risk increases every five years after age 65), along with genetic predisposition, previous head injuries, and lifestyle factors like smoking, obesity, and high alcohol intake. If you have other underlying health issues like diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol, your risk increases further. Alzheimer's, experts say, is the culmination of two different factors. "It has been said that while genetics 'loads the gun,'" says Mulcahy, "it's our lifestyle that pulls the trigger."
There's currently no cure for Alzheimer's and no preventative drug to protect the brain, but in addition to cutting out high-risk behaviors like alcohol and smoking, changing the way you eat could lead to a better fate, says Mulcahy. "There is a significantly increased incidence of Alzheimer's disease in patients with a raised body mass index. Vascular risk factors are heightened by diets high in sugars and processed carbohydrates as well as high calorie intake, central obesity, and high alcohol intake," she says.
In fact, Mulcahy tells us that Alzheimer's is 20% to 30% less prevalent in Okinawa and other areas of Japan where fish intake is high. This would make sense given omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids have been linked to healthier cognitive function. Below, Mulcahy shares other foods that will largely benefit your brain.
"We advise our patients to increase their fish intake, particularly oily fish," says Mulcahy. As mentioned above, the nutrients in oily fish like salmon, tuna, and anchovies improve brain function, particularly by maintaining brain mass as you age (though further research is needed as fish intake relates directly to the disease).
The Mediterranean diet is also advised, as Mulcahy points out that Alzheimer's rates are lower in countries like Greece, Italy, and Turkey who follow this vegetable-, fish-, whole grain–, and olive oil–rich diet. In the case of the latter, Mulcahy says extra-virgin olive oil "features anti-aging nutrients such as omega-3s and vitamin E." Researchers believe olive oil has the capability to remove toxins in the brain that cause plaque buildup to develop between neurons causing signals to be sent incorrectly, a common symptom of Alzheimer's.
In addition to being rich in vitamins and minerals, nutrient-dense vegetables are some of the best brain food. "Leafy green or cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, spinach, kale, dandelion greens) as well as other vegetables, such as onions, carrots, tomatoes, and squash, are full of vitamins, minerals, and fiber- and disease-fighting nutrients that are needed for a healthy nervous system," explains Mulcahy.
Low-sugar fruits like berries, oranges, grapefruit, and apples get the green light from Mulcahy (remember, a high-glycemic diet is fuel for Alzheimer's). And, like vegetables, they're rich in antioxidants such as vitamins A, C, and E and selenium, which are thought to be of benefit, but larger trials are needed to confirm this, says Mulcahy.
Mulcahy and her fellow researcher John Nolan also recommend whole eggs, which contain xanthophyll carotenoids, or pigments found in the yolk thought to enhance the structural integrity of membranes and positively impact neural efficiency.
As for the foods you shouldn't eat, Mulcahy warns against anything processed or fried. "Foods that are not recommended include fast food, fried food such as fish and chips, fatty foods such as red meat, pork and high-fat dairy, and, most of all, processed foods: baked goods loaded with trans fats and refined sugar such as cakes, biscuits, crisps, ready meals and frozen pizza, as well as many snacks," she explains.
When food is cooked at high temperatures, like when it's fried or charred on the grill, the lipids or proteins react with the sugars in a process called glycation that makes cells age faster, she tells us. These chemical byproducts, called advanced glycation end products (or AGEs), are also found in dairy products. Research suggests that higher levels of AGEs in the blood lead to long-term issues with cognitive function.
Up next, take a look at how yoga benefits the brain.