When thinking about their brain power, seniors should pay particular attention to what they are eating. How they fuel their mind determines their ability to contemplate, engage, and play with new ideas. It keeps their brain clear of impediments, removing barriers to sharp, subtle, and effective reasoning. In the long run, eating food for brain health can even lower their risk of cognitive decline, keeping their mind sharp so they can age comfortably in place.
Omega-3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are healthy fats found primarily in fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, cod, herring, trout, and sardines. It is also found in tuna, though amounts vary based on type. Fortunately, the richest source is canned tuna, which is widely available. If you do not like fish, oysters, flax seeds, chia seeds, and walnuts also contain large amounts of omega-3.
Omega-3 also makes up most of the brain’s gray matter, where the bulk of cognition occurs. You rely on it to process signals from the body and for a wide range of functions, including:
Brain cells communicate using chemicals called neurotransmitters. Serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine are some of the most familiar. They are made from amino acids and when they run low, it leaves people tired, sluggish, and unable to concentrate.
Protein is the only nutrient that contains the full set of amino acids, making it a great food for brain health. Fish is an excellent source of protein. Lean red meat, such as sirloin steak or round roast, is also good. Besides protein, red meat is packed with iron, which promotes oxygen flow. A steady stream of oxygen stimulates cognition, boosts memory, increases focus, and keeps you alert.
Dark, leafy greens such as spinach, swiss chard, broccoli, and kale are high in vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant. These brain-boosting nutrients help protect brain cells from free radicals, unstable molecules that destroy DNA. Studies found people who ate at least half a cup of leafy greens each day had the memory of people eleven years younger.
Greens are not only a great food for brain health, but they are also extremely versatile. You can have them in salads, as well as smoothies, soups, and scrambles. For a treat, try sauteing them with turmeric and black pepper, two anti-inflammatories that boost brain health.
Berries contain compounds called flavonoids. They act as antioxidants, protecting neural receptors and enhancing communication between brain cells. Flavonoids also prevent inflammation in nervous tissue, a known cause of both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Furthermore, eating berries provides nutrients needed to build new connections in the brain, increasing its plasticity. They also enhance the brain’s memory and learning centers. Some of the best food for brain health, berries high in flavonoids include:
Increase your berry intake by adding them to your morning oatmeal, on top of a yogurt parfait, bake them in your favorite whole-grain muffin, or simply enjoy a handful on their own.
Controlling blood sugar is key to sustaining energy, mental clarity, and cognitive performance throughout the day. Glucose spikes disrupt the flow of thinking and, in time, contribute to memory loss. With this in mind, seniors should keep blood sugar steady as possible. Watch your intake of carbohydrates, particularly sweets, processed foods, and high-fructose corn syrup. If eaten alone, carbohydrates can cause blood sugar to rise in 1-2 hours. If paired with protein, this extends to 3-4 hours.
A good way to keep it in check is to make sure vegetables are more prominent than fruit at every meal. Stick to berries when you can, but if you are eating high-sugar fruit like orange or watermelon, half it and substitute leafy greens instead. Other strategies include adding a teaspoon or two of flax, chia, or hemp seeds. If you are making a smoothie, swap in almond milk, cinnamon, or nut butter.
How brain health improves sleep
While you are sleeping, your brain is active, processing memories and new information; neural connections are formed, and recollections transferred to long-term storage. Sleep is also when the brain clears away misfolded proteins, waste products that, if allowed to build up, contribute to Alzheimer’s.
To stay healthy, brains require seven to eight hours of sleep every night. Unfortunately, changes in circadian rhythm can make it hard for some seniors to get the rest they need. However, a few key foods can help manage their sleep cycle, so they can doze comfortably.
Melatonin. The body’s internal clock is regulated by the hormone melatonin. Melatonin levels decline with age, but eating the right food helps compensate. Focus on walnuts, tart cherries, pomegranates, grapes, kiwi, eggs, milk, and fish. A 1 to 3-gram supplement works just as well.
Tryptophan. An amino acid used to make serotonin, a sleep-inducing hormone, tryptophan is found in turkey, chicken, and tuna, as well as milk, oats, cheese, nuts, bread, chocolate, apples, and bananas.
B-Vitamin Complex. Critical to the production of melatonin and serotonin, vitamin B is found mostly in animal products, such as beef, pork, poultry, and eggs. Leafy greens have some as well, but it is impossible to get enough vitamin B from plants alone.
Omega-3 & Vitamin D. These nutrients work together to regulate sleep hormones. Omega-3 foods are listed above, but vitamin D is found in red meat, liver, egg yolks, and oily fish like salmon and mackerel.
Magnesium. One of the most common minerals in the body, magnesium does a lot, but one of its most crucial roles is producing serotonin. In addition, a study of people who supplemented their diet with Magnesium L Threonate also had better brain function, on par with people 12 years younger! Magnesium-rich foods include pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, spinach, almonds black beans, avocados, and dark chocolate.
Healthy eating also means you benefit more from the sleep you get, pushing you faster into deep sleep and leaving you more refreshed the next day.
Keep food for brain health in your pantry
The most important step in keeping your brain healthy is stocking up on the right food, so it becomes a staple of your diet. Setting a meal schedule also helps avoid mindless eating. If you need a snack, fill your fridge with chopped vegetables in clear containers. That way, if you are struck by a sudden craving, you will remain focused on food that will help you age safely in place.
Jasmine El Nabli, MS, RDN is a Registered Dietitian who empowers and educates individuals through her scientific, holistic approach to health and happiness. With the right tools, skills, and knowledge, she shows people how to create healthy and sustainable eating habits through small changes to daily life.