We all want to be as mentally sharp as possible on a daily basis, and preserve our minds as we age.
Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia are among the most dreaded diseases, but it now appears as though we can protect our brains with simple dietary choices.
For clues about how to eat for optimal brain functioning, we can look around the world for the places with the lowest rates of cognitive decline.
Out of one hundred senior citizens in rural Ballabgarh India, only about three of them on average will develop Alzheimer’s disease within the next decade. That number jumps to about 19 out of one hundred senior citizens in rural Pennsylvania.
The people in rural India eat a diet that is low in meat and high in grains, beans, and vegetables.
That is consistent with the world’s Blue Zones — the longest-lived places around the world — where people eat a 95 percent plant-based diet rich in beans, greens, grains, and nuts.
Contrast that with the United States, where people eat over 220 pounds of meat — per person — each year. Americans get only about 12% of their calories from vegetables.
Unfortunately, high saturated fat intake (from meat, dairy, and processed food) is associated with cognitive decline and memory loss. And the U.S. has the 2nd highest rate of Alzheimer’s in the world.
However, if you take away the meat, you might take away some of the risk.
And the longer meat is avoided, the lower the risk. For example, compared with people who eat meat 4 or more times per week, the dementia risk of people who have eaten vegetarian diets for at least 30 years is 3 times lower.
Unfortunately, the opposite also seems to be true. If you go from a vegetable-based diet to a meat-heavy one, the rate of cognitive decline increases.
For example, the prevalence of Alzheimer’s in Japan has shot up over the past few decades, attributed to the shift from a rice-and-vegetable-based diet to a diet featuring triple the dairy and 6 times the meat.
So what are some simple recommendations?
The Dietary and Lifestyle Guidelines for the Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease now calls for vegetables, legumes (beans, peas, and lentils), fruits, and whole grains to replace meat and dairy products as primary staples of the diet.
The Mediterranean Diet, for example, follows those principles and has been associated with slower cognitive decline and lower risk of Alzheimer’s. It appears as though the high vegetable consumption and lower ratio of saturated to unsaturated fats are the critical protective factors.
If you want to have the best-of-the-best brain foods, Dr. Greger says the special antioxidant pigments in berries and dark green leafy vegetables make them the brain foods of the fruit and vegetable kingdom.
In addition to diet, I am also a huge proponent of cardiovascular exercise (at least 30 minutes) first thing in the morning to stay mentally sharp throughout the day.
The advice is clear: Stay active, eat more fruits and veggies, and cut down on meat.
As Dr. Greger says, “A wholesome diet and exercise may offer your best hope for remaining sharp and healthy into your twilight years.”
Andrew Merle writes about living well, including good habits for health, happiness, productivity, and success. Subscribe to his email list at andrewmerle.com.