Eat to Get Smarter
Remember that gray blob floating in a jar in high school biology lab? Don't let its simple appearance deceive you. Your complex brain is command central, humming along and controlling everything that happens in your body. And it's packed with tiny, fragile cells that are easily damaged--by free radicals, too much alcohol, raging blood sugar, and cloying cholesterol, the same things that make your cardiovascular system run like a junkyard jalopy.
Sadly, your brain doesn't recover from slights, injuries, abuse, or neglect as rapidly as other body parts such as your heart. (And you know how tender that is!) "Once a nerve cell is dead, it's dead," says nutrition scientist Joshua Miller, PhD, assistant professor of medical pathology at the University of California, Davis, Medical Center. "Nothing can bring it back." Ouch!
You can either coddle or curdle your brain by what you feed it. "More than any other organ in your body, your brain is dependent on its minute-to-minute nutrient supply," says Miller. And the new science of how food affects your brain is starting to reveal the best diet to help you hold onto your thinking cap.
Heart Food Is Brain Food
As it turns out, your brain and your heart have a lot in common. If your arteries are clogged with cholesterol and oxygen can't get to your brain, you probably can't think as well, increasing your chances of memory loss. And you're risking more than not being able to find your car keys or forgetting that joke you heard at work.
If heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes gallop out of control, you could damage blood vessels in your brain, which sets you up for dementia. "And that goes hand in hand with Alzheimer's disease," says Jim Joseph, PhD, chief of the neuroscience laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston.
There's already good evidence that what hurts your heart hurts your brain. When more than 10,000 people ages 47 to 70 were tested for their learning and memory abilities 6 years apart at the Mayo Clinic, those who had diabetes or high blood pressure at the start did far worse the second time when they were asked to translate numbers into symbols. The people with diabetes also fell way behind in making up lists of words starting with a certain letter of the alphabet.
An even longer study of men in Hawaii (average age at the start: 52) showed that those who had a condition sometimes called Syndrome X--a combination of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, insulin resistance or diabetes, and overweight--at the beginning of the study were more likely to have dementia related to blood vessel damage 26 years later. "People with a clustering of risk factors at middle age should be encouraged to modify them by eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise," says researcher Sandra Kalmijn, MD, PhD, now with the National Institute of Public Health and the Environment in the Netherlands.
There's encouraging evidence that doing so--as well as using medication--can help control both cardiovascular disease and diabetes, preserving your brainpower as a bonus. A French study of people with high blood pressure found that those who didn't treat their condition had a much more rapid loss on mental function tests than those who controlled their high blood pressure with diet and medication. And a Finnish study showed that three simple diet changes could head off diabetes progression by 58 percent over 4 years: Lose about 8 pounds, eat less fat, and eat more fiber.
One good way to achieve disease control and lose weight as well is the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stopping Hypertension) Diet, combined with regular exercise. The DASH Diet's daily low-fat combination of 8 to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables, 2 or 3 servings of low-fat dairy foods, about 6 ounces or less of protein from meat or fish and a small portion of nuts, and 7 or 8 servings of whole grain foods lowered blood pressure as effectively as medication in just 2 weeks in people with moderately high blood pressure.
By reducing the calorie content of the DASH Diet (it's geared to people who eat 2,000 calories a day), you can also lose weight. (To lower your disease risks, you need to lose just 10 percent of your body weight, or 18 pounds if you weigh in at 180.) Plus, the diet contains a wide variety of heart- and brain-protective nutrients, including antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamins C and D.
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