Brain-Healthy Foods and Exercises for Keeping Dementia at Bay

(Robert Kneschke/Shutterstock)

Like our bodies, our brains need regular exercise to stay limber and quick as we age.

In a world where everyone seems to know or be related to someone with dementia, avoiding it is a top concern for many people as they age. How can we prevent cognitive decline and even boost our intelligence as we prepare for the golden years?

Regular mental engagement can keep our minds sharp, and a diet rich in brain-nourishing foods and plenty of exercise are essential basics to lower the risk of dementia. In this article, we will explore several natural ways to keep the brain sharp and healthy.

Dementia refers to the loss of cognitive functions, such as thinking, memory, and reasoning—to the degree of impacts daily life and activities. According to the National Institutes of Health, around one-third of people aged 85 or older may experience some form of dementia. Yet, dementia is not a normal part of aging—many individuals live into their 90s without any signs of cognitive decline.

 A deficiency in vitamins, medication side effects, tumors, or issues with the thyroid, kidneys, or liver, can also lead to severe memory problems that resemble dementia. Fortunately, treatment can help prevent or even reverse certain causes of dementia symptoms.

6 Types of Brain-Healthy Foods

We can start bolstering our brains through attention to our diets. Here are six types of foods that contribute to enhancing brain function and memory:

  1. Berries

Strawberries, blueberries, and cranberries, rich in antioxidants, can reduce damage from free radicals and delay age-related cognitive decline. Additionally, the abundant vitamin C in these berries plays a crucial role in the synthesis of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter associated with brain cell function and memory.

A study published in 2022 revealed that berry-based supplements and foods offer beneficial effects on cognitive function, memory performance, processing speed, and other brain functions.

  1. Nuts

Walnuts, peanuts, cashews, chestnuts, and pine nuts contribute to enhanced cognitive function. Walnuts nourish the kidneys and enrich the blood, while peanuts can protect against age-related cognitive decline. These nuts are not only delicious but also help maintain a sharp mind.

A study published in the journal Advances in Nutrition found that the cognitive benefits of consuming nuts are more pronounced in individuals at a higher risk of cognitive impairment.

  1. Black-Colored Foods

According to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), black-colored foods are believed to protect the kidneys, which store “essence” and generate marrow, providing essential substances for the brain. Examples of such foods include black sesame seeds, black fungus, black beans, and mulberries.

In TCM, qi, blood, essence, and body fluids are the essential substances for life activities, all originating from the internal organs and flowing constantly inside the body. Ensuring these essential substances are sufficient and circulating throughout the body is very important for health and well-being. Illnesses or other conditions are caused by the stagnation or lack of these substances.

  1. Dark Green Vegetables

Vegetables like spinach, mustard greens, broccoli, and kale are rich in nutrients essential for the brain, such as vitamin K, lutein, β-carotene, nitrates, folate, chlorogenic acid, and α-tocopherol. All these components contribute to preventing cognitive decline.

A study published in the journal Neurology indicated that the consumption of green leafy vegetables is linearly associated with a slower rate of cognitive decline. Individuals who eat one to two servings of leafy greens daily experience a significantly slower decline in cognitive abilities, equivalent to being 11 years younger, compared to those who rarely or never consume leafy greens.

  1. Pumpkin

Pumpkins are rich in glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter that enhances the metabolic responses of nerve cells and the brain. Additionally, the zinc found in pumpkin seeds can activate the brain, boosting attention and memory.

  1. Deep-sea Fish

The fish oil in deep-sea fish is rich in omega-3, particularly DHA, which plays a crucial role in the cell membranes of the brain and retina. Regular consumption of deep-sea fish rich in DHA contributes to maintaining brain health.

The Adverse Effects of Excessive Sugar Consumption on the Brain

An animal study from the University of Georgia revealed that early-life excessive sugar intake can alter gut bacteria, potentially leading to future cognitive impairments. The study found that rats consuming sugar-sweetened beverages during the adolescent stage experienced changes in gut microbiota, impairing hippocampal-dependent memory in adulthood.

Here, “sugar” refers to the refined sugar found in sugary drinks, snacks, and desserts. On the other hand, natural sugars present in whole foods are essential as they come with crucial nutrients for human health, including various vitamins, fiber, minerals, and more. It is incorrect to assume that all natural sugars are harmful—the key is to minimize the consumption of refined sugars.

The Link Between Mental Inactivity and Cognitive Decline

Brain function can decline with inactivity. After retirement, some people lead leisurely lives, sometimes spending additional time lounging on the couch watching TV or napping. As the body becomes more sedentary, the brain may become sluggish too. Consequently, the mood worsens, leading to confusion, lack of energy —even for short walks—and an appearance that seems older than the body’s actual age. Inactivity of the mind and body over time may lead to cognitive decline.

In fact, the human brain thrives on activity. The transmission in the brain’s neural system occurs through the stimulation of neurotransmitters connected to neurons, and neurotransmitters play a crucial role in facilitating communication between the brain and the body. When the brain is underutilized, not engaged in learning, or lacks stimulation and challenges, the transmission between neurons begins to disconnect, increasing the risk of cognitive decline.

Conversely, regular brain engagement increases neural transmissions, offering more opportunities for brain exercises. This leads to faster reactions, increased transmission speeds, and enhanced brain agility.

We can maintain a youthful and sharp state of mind by continuously learning new skills, adopting a multi-dimensional approach to problem-solving, and consistently providing stimulation and challenges to the brain.

2 Exercises for Dementia Prevention

In addition to diet and learning, exercise is crucial for maintaining a healthy and active brain. Brisk walking and back muscle stretching can prevent dementia and promote brain growth. These two exercises are simple and effective, especially for individuals aged 50 and above who are not accustomed to regular physical activity.

  1. Brisk Walking

Yu Taniguchi, a Japanese geriatric medicine expert, suggested in his book that step length reflects the health of our brain cells. Individuals with a step length of less than 25.6 inches (65 cm) face a threefold higher risk of dementia. Taking larger steps is the first step in preventing dementia.

In a study published by Mr. Taniguchi and his team in 2012, the gait performance of elderly participants was analyzed. They found that among speed, frequency, and step length, step length is an independent predictor of cognitive decline in a general population of older adults. The study involved 853 participants aged 70 and above with intact cognitive function. Over the subsequent four-year period, these participants underwent cognitive reevaluation at least once. The results revealed that 110 participants experienced cognitive decline.

The results also found that, after adjusting for significant confounding factors, older men with the lowest and middle tertiles of step length at maximum speed had 4.42 times and 2.17 times higher likelihood, respectively, of cognitive decline compared to those with the longest step length. Similarly, older women with the lowest and middle tertiles of step length at usual speed had 5.76 times and 2.44 times higher likelihood, respectively, of cognitive decline compared to those with the longest step length.

Therefore, it is advisable to gradually increase your step length, starting with an increment of approximately 0.4 to 1.2 inches (1 to 3 cm) beyond your usual stride. Maintain an upright posture, lift your gaze, and let your arms swing naturally as you walk. This practice can enhance the frequency exchange of signals between the brain and feet, leading to greater brain activation.

Brisk walking not only stimulates the neural pathways in the brain, revitalizes muscle activity, enhances cardiovascular function, and prevents dementia, but also uplifts mood.

  1. Upright Posture

Maintaining an upright posture with a straightened back and elongated neck can enhance blood flow to the brain. Dedicating five to ten minutes daily to sitting with stretched back muscles can help activate your brain.

Rahul Jandial, a neurosurgeon and neuroscientist, has stated in media interviews that when a person stands or walks, the brain secretes proteins called brain-derived neurotrophic factors.

The brain’s health is closely tied to the function and interaction of its neurons. Neurons communicate through synapses, and factors like neurotrophic growth factors support the health and growth of neurons. These growth factors, such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), insulin-like growth factor (IGF), and others, are crucial for neuroplasticity, which is the ability of the brain to adapt and reorganize itself. When neurons are healthy and their communication is optimized, it can positively impact cognitive functions like memory, learning, and overall brain performance.

 The sitting posture for back muscle stretching exercise. (Marcin Balcerzak/Shutterstock)
The sitting posture for back muscle stretching exercise. (Marcin Balcerzak/Shutterstock)

2 Practices for Maximizing Brain Rest

In addition to diet and exercise, meditation and adequate sleep are also beneficial for brain health, allowing your brain to rest properly.

  1. Meditation

Regular meditation can strengthen neural connections, promote blood circulation, and supply the brain with the necessary oxygen and nutrients. This, in turn, enhances brain function, improves attention and concentration, and alleviates stress and anxiety.

Advanced meditators, while meditating with a focused mind, can achieve significant synchronization of both body and mind. In some cases, this can even lead to extraordinary cognitive abilities.

In recent years, the benefits of meditation in improving dementia have become widely recognized. A study published in the Alzheimer’s Research & Therapy journal pointed out that psychological factors such as stress, anxiety, depression, and neuroticism are known risk factors for dementia. Yet, there is limited focus on these factors in preventive non-pharmacological interventions. Research suggests that meditation can alleviate stress, regulate emotions, and improve attention, contributing to the mental and brain health of older individuals.

  1. Adequate sleep

The brain remains active when we sleep, but its tasks change. During sleep, the brain produces a special fluid to flush away waste and eliminate harmful substances. If one cannot sleep well, the brain’s clearance system cannot function properly, potentially leading to various health issues.

Our brain consolidates memories during sleep. Adequate sleep helps repair and regenerate brain cells, clear metabolic waste, and enhance overall brain function and health.

Traditional Chinese Medicine’s Treatment Approach to Dementia

For individuals experiencing dementia, traditional Chinese medicine treatment approaches can assist in memory and cognitive restoration. Tao Jie An, a medical practitioner from the Ming Dynasty, described dementia as a symptom where one’s consciousness appears detached from the body. People with this condition may eat when given food but show no interest otherwise, seemingly forgetting everything. Tao Jie An used a formula called Dao Chi Ge Ban Tang to treat such patients, incorporating ingredients like Coptis chinensis, Radix Scutellariae, licorice, rhinoceros horn, Radix Ophiopogonis, talcum, fructus gardeniae, Poria cocos, Rhizoma Anemarrhenae, and Panax ginseng.

In my clinical experience, I once encountered a patient in their 40s suffering from dementia. The patient seemed incomprehensible and was unable to care for themselves, placing a heavy burden on their family members. After administering the Dao Chi Ge Ban Tang, the patient became lucid and regained cognitive abilities and memory. The dementia was effectively treated.

Note: Some herbs mentioned in this article may be unfamiliar, but they are generally available in health food stores and Asian grocery stores. It is important to note that treatment methods may vary depending on the individual. Please consult with a healthcare professional for a specific treatment plan.

Important Notice: This article was originally published at by Naiwen Hu where all credits are due.


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