Best Foods for Enhancing Cognition

Best Foods for Enhancing Cognition

With age, some level of cognitive decline is to be expected. However, age is the largest risk factor for more serious cognitive issues such as memory loss and dementia. These are defined as cognitive declines that interfere with independent functioning. While normal age-related declines in cognition may be minor inconveniences, dementia is a serious and life-threatening disease. For example, by age 45, the objective memory performance of individuals is lower than it was when they were in their twenties. The mental slips that occur are minimal and do not progress into anything more serious. With dementia, of course, cognitive decline is much more serious. Interestingly, there are many conditions that can cause dementia, such as depression, medication side-effects, thyroid imbalances and other medical issues. Risk factors for cognitive issues include smoking, lack of sleep, head trauma, and untreated high blood pressure or high cholesterol. Even more interesting perhaps is the link to nutrition that many of these causes and risk factors have. Recent research has shown that a healthy lifestyle, including a balanced diet, regular exercise, stress management and mental stimulation can protect brain health as you age. In this article we will explore foods that you can eat to help enhance your cognition.

Beat Foods for your brain

Just as with medication, there is no single food that you can eat to make sure your brain stays healthy. Nutritionists recommend following a healthy diet that consists of a lot of vegetables, fruits, legumes and whole grains. Protein is best found from plant sources and fish. About 60% of your brain is made of fat, with half of that being omega-3 fatty acids. It is no surprise then that healthy fats, such as those found in avocados, nuts, seeds and cold water fatty fish, are important for brain health. Limit saturated fats as much as you can. Some key nutrients for brain health include omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins and antioxidants. Increasing your consumption of foods rich in these nutrients will help support a healthy brain, which could translate to enhanced cognition. 

The following foods have been linked to enhanced cognition.

1. Leafy Green Vegetables

You hear about green, leafy vegetables all the time for a reason. Examples include kale, spinach, collards and broccoli. These greens are high in vitamin K, lutein, folate and beta carotene, all of which support brain health. Research has down that leafy green vegetables may slow down cognitive decline. 

freshly picked leafy greens

2. Berries

Berries are rich in flavonoids. Flavonoids are a natural pigment in plants that give berries their colour. According to research, flavonoids also aid in memory. One study of women found that those who ate two or more servings of strawberries and blueberries each week delayed their memory decline by up to two and a half years. Deeply coloured berries such as blueberries contain anthocyanins, which are an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant-rich group of plant compounds. Antioxidants are important for brain health as they protect against oxidative stress, as well as inflammation. Both oxidative stress and inflammation can contribute to brain aging, cognitive decline and neurodegenerative diseases. Studies have shown that the antioxidants in blueberries accumulate in the brain and enhance communication between brain cells. Animal studies have also displayed the potential for blueberries to improve memory and delay short term memory loss. 

Bowl Berries

As mentioned earlier, fatty fish are a great source of healthy fats, particularly omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are unsaturated, which has to do with the types of bonds within the molecules. The structure of fats greatly impacts their function and behaviour in our bodies. Omega-3 fatty acids have been linked to lower levels of beta-amyloid in the blood. Beta-amyloid is a protein that forms plaques in the brain of individuals with Alzhemier’s disease. These plaques are damaging and contribute to cognitive decline. Omega-3 fatty acids are used by the brain to build nerve and brain cells, and are also necessary for learning and memory. Not consuming enough omega-3 fatty acids has been linked to learning disabilities and depression. 

Ideally, eat fish two times per week. Mercury is a concern, so choose varieties that are low in mercury. Good options include salmon, cod, canned light tuna and pollack.  In case you need more convincing, one study found that those who ate baked or broiled fish regularly had high amounts of gray matter. Gray matter is the part of the brain with most of the nerve cells responsible for decision making, memory and emotion. If you do not like fish, other sources of omega-3 fatty acids include flaxseeds, avocados, walnuts and of course omega-3 supplements.

Foods containing omega 3

4. Walnuts

Walnuts are also high in omega-3 fatty acids. Nuts in general are a good source of protein and healthy fats, but walnuts specifically seem to have links to brain health. One study associated high walnut intake with improved cognitive scores. Walnuts have high amounts of omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) which also improves blood pressure and can protect your arteries. 


5. Turmeric 

Turmeric has become increasingly popular as a potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant. The active component in turmeric is called curcumin. Curcumin has been shown to cross the blood-brain barrier, which is a protective barrier around the brain that only allows very specific molecules through. Curcumin can therefore directly benefit the cells in the brain. The anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties of curcumin may improve memory in those with Alzheimer’s, clear amyloid plaques, ease depression, and help brain cells grow. Curcumin may delay age-related cognitive decline, but more research is needed in this area. 

Fresh turmeric roots

6. Tea and Coffee

The caffeine in tea and coffee has been suggested to improve cognition. One study showed that those with higher caffeine consumption scored higher on mental function tests. Another study linked caffeine intake with solidifying new memories. Coffee also contains antioxidants that help improve brain health. Some of the positive brain effects of caffeine include increased alertness, improved mood, and sharpened concentration. Long-term coffee consumption has also been linked to a reduced risk of neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

Green tea also contains caffeine and has been shown to boost brain function. Improvements include increased alertness, performance, memory, and focus. Green tea contains L-theanine which is an amino acid that can also cross the blood-brain barrier. L-theanine increases the activity of the neurotransmitter GABA, which plays an important role in reducing anxiety. Green tea also contains polyphenols and antioxidants that may prevent cognitive decline and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Green tea has also been found to improve memory.

Tea, green leaf and glass coffee jar

7. Eggs

As mentioned earlier, vitamin B is important for brain health. Eggs are a rich source of vitamin B6, B12, folate and choline. Choline is used by your body to create acetylcholine, which is a neurotransmitter involved in many body processes, including regulating mood and memory. Two studies have linked high intakes of choline with improved memory and cognitive function. Egg yolks are one of the most concentrated sources of choline. B vitamins may help slow mental decline as you age, and B12 plays a role in creating brain chemicals and regulating blood sugar in the brain. Folate deficiency is common in older adults and individuals with dementia. Studies have shown that supplementing with folic acid can help decrease age-related mental decline. 

Eggs as food for the brain

While there are no foods that will directly lead to enhanced cognition, the foods discussed in this article contain nutrients and compounds that support a healthy brain. Try incorporating some of these foods into your diet. Your brain will thank you!

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