Brain Food: Eating Right to Fight Alzheimer’s

We’re all familiar with the concept of  “superfoods,” but few people actually know why some foods are so much better than others. Fewer still know that some foods have a direct effect on the brain, reducing inflammation, facilitating communication between cells, and building new neural pathways. Here are some of the best foods to keep elderly minds sharp and focused, stimulate brain activity, and fight Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

  • Concord grape juice, red wine, blackberries, and chocolate all have something in common. Polyphenols are powerful antioxidants found in all three that stimulate neural activity, reduce inflammation, and increse the blood flow to the brain. Researchers at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine performed a small study with 12 elderly adults suffering from memory loss. For three months, each senior was given either a glass of real concord grape juice every day or a grape-flavored drink. The researchers concluded that participants given the real grape juice showed a significant improvement in spatial memory and verbal skills. Two ounces of dark chocolate, one glass of red wine, or a cup of blackberries contains a comparable amount of polyphenols.
  • Extra virgin olive oil contains a compound called oleocanthal that is known to block the development of  amyloid B-derived diffusible ligands (ADDLs), proteins directly associated with Alzheimer’s disease, loss of memory, and brain degeneration.
  • Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids (DHA), including salmon, sardines, and other oily fish common to cold water, are well known for lowering bad cholesterol, but scientists have recently begun to explore how DHA affects the brain and helps stop Alzheimer’s.
  • Food rich in vitamins D, E, K and folate (a B vitamin) stimulate cognitive brain functions, improve memory, and help lift the fog. Dark leafy greens, like kale, spinach, and turnip greens, are bursting with these nutrients and are a great way to improve both health and brain function. There is some controversy about whether taking vitamins offers the same benefits as getting vitamins through whole food nutrition.
  • Curry, a common spice used in Indian cooking, has a substance called curcumin, which is known to reduce inflammation and prevent the formation of beta amyloid plaques characteristic of Alzheimer’s. Tumeric, the main ingredient in curry powder, is the curcumin source. Tumeric is a mild spice that can be added to soups, stews, bean and vegetable dishes to add the benefits without the spicy curry flavor that might irritate a delicate digestive system.
  • There are two common hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease, beta-amyloid plaques that build up and tau proteins that tangle in the brain and cause brain cell death. For the last couple of years, the University of California at Santa Barbara has been studying the effects of compounds found in cinnamon, proanthocyanidins and cinnamaldehyde, on tau proteins. Similar research at the UCSB Neuroscience Research Institute (NRI) is focused on cinnamon’s insulin-like function and how the reactions affect proteins associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Cinnamon is well known in diabetic circles, but the research tying it to Alzheimer’s is in the infancy stage. Even though it’s unproven, a tasty sprinkle on toast or in oatmeal can’t hurt and can potentially help. There’s no down side.
  • A common supplement or food additive, carnosine, was studied in 2008 for its effects on another neurological disease, Parkinson’s. A team of researchers from  Illarioshkin S. Research Center of Neurology at the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences in Moscow found that adding carnosine to the diets of study participants showed significant improvement of neurological symptoms. Similar results have been noted in Alzheimer studies on rats.

There is no known cure for Alzheimer’s, and one of the most effective known treatments is exercise. The foods on this list are all healthy and highly recommended by the American Heart Association.

One note of caution: People taking chemotherapy should report all supplements and diet changes to the oncologist in charge of treatment to ensure that the efficacy of cancer treatment is not affected by the changes.

The research on diet and Alzheimer’s disease is encouraging. Future treatments for many difficult diseases and the recipe for a longer, healthier life may someday come down to a lifetime of better menu choices and a commitment to more exercise. How exciting that we can observe changes in cognitive function with something as simple and pleasurable as a glass of grape juice or grilled salmon for dinner.


Bio: Cindy Johnson is a freelance writer with a passion for healthy eating and a healthy lifestyle. Read her blog for weekly health updates. When she’s not writing, Cindy loves to hike in the mountains of North Carolina, where she lives with her husband, son, and a small assortment of dogs.

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