Diet and Nutrition

A Healthy Brain Needs a Healthy Diet

A new study confirms that a diet rich in vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids and low in trans fats is essential for brain health. Brain shrinkage associated with Alzheimer’s disease is less in older people who consumed these kinds of food. The individuals who had healthy diet scored higher on mental and thinking tests compared to those who did not follow the diet. Some of the earlier studies suggested that a heart healthy diet was also good for the brain. According to Gene L. Bowman, ND, MPH, assistant professor of neurology at the Layton Aging & Alzheimer's Disease Center, Oregon Health & Science University, Portland, a combination of B vitamins, the antioxidants C and E, and vitamin D, would be the favorable combination of nutrients for a healthy brain. The results of the study are published in the journal, Neurology.

According to the researchers the most unfavorable content in a diet is a high amount of trans fats. Trans fat is found in baked foods and fast foods like cookies, crackers, and potato chips. Some of the good sources of B vitamins are milk and dairy, whole grain cereals and peanut butter. Vitamin C is rich in fruits and vegetables, and E is found in nuts and oils. Fatty fishes like salmon and fortified milk are rich in vitamin D.

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In this study, the participants were an average age of 87-years-old and had very few risk factors, such as diabetes or high blood pressure. All the participants were given memory and thinking skill tests as well as blood tests. MRI scans was used to measure the brain volumes for the participants. Decrease in the brain volume is linked with a decline in the thinking ability associated with Alzheimer’s disease. In this study, the researchers evaluated the impact of diet on the risk of declining mental abilities. They also tried to associate the decline in mental ability with other factors such as age or high blood pressure.

To study the association between diet and mental ability researchers studied 30 different nutrient biomarkers. Among the different nutrients vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids and trans fats were linked to brain health. Age caused about 46% of variation in the mental ability, while diet caused about 17%. Diet also affects brain volume as much as that of other risk factors. Diet caused 37% of variations in brain volume, while other risk factors caused about 40% of variations.

One of the major drawbacks of the study is that it was looking at one point in time and one cannot say that these patterns predict rate of change over time. “The study results show that one day mental decline can be prevented by diet”, says Christy Tangney, PhD, associate professor of clinical nutrition at Rush University Medical Center, Chicago. “Another major drawback of the study is that the participants of the study were not very diverse," says Heather Snyder, PhD, senior associate director of medical and scientific relations for the Alzheimer's Association. Until these research findings are confirmed by other studies, eating a heart healthy diet is the best way to protect the brain. 

Key Takeaways

  • A new study confirms that a diet rich in vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids and low in trans fats is important for brain health.
  • The most unfavorable content in the diet is a high amount of trans fats and or sugar.
  • Study results show that mental decline can be prevented or postponed by diet.