by Hedieh Davanloo, MD
Though most people are familiar with the benefits of eating a heart healthy diet of lean protein and plenty of fruits and vegetables, recent studies show that such as diet is also good for another important organ.
“It turns out a heart-healthy diet also helps protect the brain,” says Hedieh Davanloo, M.D., a board-certified geriatrician with USMD Arlington North Clinic.
Dr. Davanloo notes that it’s especially important to limit the amount of sugar and saturated fats a person eats.
“Too much sugar has been linked to dementia, and high fat foods promote the development of plaque that narrow the arteries and veins and make it hard for blood to circulate the way it should through the heart and up to the brain,” Dr. Davanloo says.
The Alzheimer’s Association reports that research has shown that the following two heart-healthy diets also benefit the brain:
• DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) Diet. This diet emphasizes leafy green vegetables, fresh fruit, and fat-free or low-fat dairy products. It also includes whole grains, fish, lean poultry, beans, seeds, nuts and vegetable oils. Just as importantly, DASH limits sodium, sweets, sugary beverages and red meats.
• Mediterranean Diet. This popular diet emphasizes whole grains, fruits and vegetables, fish and shellfish, nuts, olive oil and other healthy fats. Red meat should only be eaten once or twice a month.
Sip a little vino in moderation.
Some studies tout the benefits of drinking red wine in moderation because it contains resveratrol—a polyphenol found in the skin of red grapes that is beneficial to heart and brain health and has been linked to slowing aging—Dr. Davanloo urges caution. While polyphenols act like antioxidants that protect the body against damage, the alcohol in wine is toxic to nerves.
“When you’re young you can regenerate nerves, but as you age, you lose that ability and there isn’t a way to compensate for it the loss of nerve cells,” she warns.
Discover the benefits of B12.
Scientists have long known that B12 is vital to brain health. In fact, studies are currently underway to see if B12 can combat the brain shrinkage that happens with aging. Maintaining proper levels of B12 can help fight off memory loss, anxiety and depression, but before stocking up on expensive supplements, Dr. Davanloo recommends first having a blood test to find out if there is a B12 or other vitamin deficiency.
“Once we have this information, I can recommend supplements based on the individualized needs of your body,” Dr. Davanloo says. “Otherwise, if your body doesn’t need a particular vitamin or supplement, (the extra) will simply be excreted through your urine—which just means you’ll have expensive urine. But when we use vitamins and supplements to address specific deficiencies, we can see a lot of benefits.”
What about brain supplements?
Drug and grocery store shelves are stocked with a dizzying array of supplements and the Internet is full of online ads for pills that promise to boost cognitive function, maximize memory and improve mental focus. Classified as supplements, most of these products are not manufactured according to consumer-protection laws established by the Federal Drug Administration or put through the agency’s rigorous approval process. Because of this lack of oversight, many have no nutritional value.
“Seniors who may be on fixed incomes are often targeted by these products that may have no benefit,” Dr. Davanloo adds. “There may be alternatives that are more effective and affordable. And sometimes, these expensive supplements are sold to people who already have dementia or memory loss and don’t have the decision-making capacity to determine if the supplements can be helpful or are really needed.”
Never start taking supplements without consulting your primary care physician. For many, they are not needed and it could be dangerous to take them with other medications.
Other suggestions for a healthy brain.
Physical activity also plays an important role in brain health.
“Be physically active to the limit that you can,” Dr. Davanloo says. “By keeping your blood circulating and flowing to the brain, you can help brain function remain stable for a longer period of time.” Cardiovascular exercise that elevates your heart rate increases blood flow to your brain. Plus, it helps reduce high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol—conditions that increase your risk for dementia.
Learning new things also helps keep the mind alert. New skills like learning a second language or taking up a new hobby are good ways to help your brain stay agile. Gardening, dancing, caring for a pet, bird watching, or studying genealogy are just a few of the activities experts say are good for seniors.
Staying in contact with old friends and making new ones is another way to nourish the brain. “Individuals who socialize are less depressed,” says Dr. Davanloo. “Mood behaviors such as depression are tied to memory loss—that’s why it’s good to spend time with other individuals. If depression persists, people don’t need to suffer through it. Depression responds well to medical treatment. When you treat depression, memory can get better.”
Hedieh Davanloo, M.D., is Board Certified in internal medicine by the American Board of Internal Medicine. She graduated from Friedrich-Schiller University Medical School in Germany, and completed an internal medicine residency at Newark Beth Israel Medicine Center in New Jersey and a fellowship in geriatric medicine at New York University Medical School.