According to a study by the University of Illinois, eating foods rich in lutein – like many leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables for example – will help promote a healthy aging brain.
(Lutein is a plant pigment humans consume through diet. It’s called a carotenoid vitamin and has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, Mayo Clinic says.)
“Previous studies have found that a person’s lutein status is linked to cognitive performance across the lifespan,” says Marta Zamroziewicz, lead author of the study. “Research also shows that lutein accumulates in the grey matter of brain regions known to underlie the preservation of cognitive function in healthy brain again.”
Foods found to have the highest levels of lutein include corn, egg yolk, kiwi, pumpkin, zucchini squash and spinach, a previous study in the British Medical Journal reported.
The University of Illinois study looked at 122 healthy people between the ages of 65 and 75. They were asked to solve problems and answer questions on a standard test of crystallized intelligence.
(According to Psychology Today, there are two types of intelligence: crystallized and fluid. Crystallized intelligence is the ability to utilize the information, skills, knowledge and experiences we’ve acquired to solve problems. Fluid intelligence is the ability to solve new problems by using logic in new situations and identifying patterns.)
Researchers also ordered MRI brain scans for each participant, as well as collected blood samples to determine the serum levels of lutein.
While focusing on the temporal cortex of the brain – a region that helps preserve crystallized intelligence – researchers found that those with higher lutein levels tended to do better on tests.
These same test subjects also tended to have thicker grey matter in the parahippocampal cortex, a region of the brain that is preserved in healthy aging.
“Our analyses revealed that grey-matter volume of the parahippocampal cortex on the right side of the brain accounts for the relationship between lutein and crystallized intelligence,” says Aron Barbey, psychology professor at the university. “This offers the first clue as to which brain regions specifically play a role in the preservation of crystallized intelligence, and how factors such as diet may contribute to that relationship.”
The study did not specify the amount of lutein that is needed for ultimate brain protection and only concluded that more levels of the vitamin meant a better chance at brain health preservation.
While a definitive and direct correlation between nutrition and brain health has yet to be proven beyond a doubt, Mount Sinai neuroscientist Dr. Graham Collingridge says diet still remains an important factor for a healthy brain.
“It’s very difficult to prove a direct cause and effect association between any different food and memory,” says Collingridge, who was not a part of the study. “But I think people would say that food such as broccoli and spinach, which is generally rich in vitamins and nutrients, is good for the body and it’s also got to be good for the mind and brain.”
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And having good brain health is important to overall health and physical well-being. If your brain health is poor, Collingridge says it could lead to other serious neurological conditions like developmental disorders right through to dementia.
At some point, everyone will experience some sort of an impact to their memory as they age. However, if there is a point when the memory loss becomes dangerous (like forgetting to remove a pot from a hot stove), that’s when people should think about seeing a doctor, Collingridge says.
Luckily, there are believed to be several ways to help prevent memory loss, or at least slow it down.
Besides maintaining a healthy diet, Harvard Medical School suggests doing the following:
- Exercise: Physical and mental fitness go together. Those who regularly exercise tend to stay mentally sharp well into their 70s and 80s.
- Don’t smoke: Smoking can cause illnesses that contribute to memory loss, including stroke and hypertension. Smoking also constricts the blood vessels to the brain, depriving it of oxygen and possibly harming neurons.
- Get a good night’s rest: Sleep is needed for memory consolidation and overall good health. It’s not just the amount of sleep you get, but also the quality of your rest.
- Consider vitamins: Antioxidant vitamins like vitamins C and E and beta carotene are thought to benefit the memory by neutralizing destructive molecules that damage healthy tissue in the body. These molecules have been found in the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s disease.
If you want to improve your memory and brain health, researchers at Harvard Medical School also offers these tips:
- Keep learning: A higher level of education is associated with better mental functioning in old age, Harvard Medical School says. Researchers believe this may help keep memory strong by keeping people mentally active.
- Use all your senses: The more senses you use to learn something, the more your brain will be able to retain memories.
- Believe in yourself: People who believe they’re not in control of their memory abilities are less likely to work at maintaining and improving their memory skills.
- Economize your brain use: Use calendars, planners and lists to help preserve mental energy. Find a regular place to put things (like your keys) and remove any clutter to minimize distractions.
- Repeat what you want to know: If you want to remember something you’ve just heard or read, repeat it out loud or write it down. It’s a way to reinforce the memory or connection.
- Space it out: But don’t repeat things over and over again in a short period of time. Spacing it out will help you retain the information better.