Consuming a mix of nutrient-packed foods—not focusing on a single “superfood”—and maintaining a normal weight are two pillars of cognitive well-being. And embracing the former can help with the latter.
People who got as little as a daily half-serving of flavonoid-rich foods like apples, berries, and pears were 20 percent less likely to report thinking declines than those who rarely ate them, in a long-term study. Flavonoids may curb inflammation and cell damage, and aid artery blood flow, says co-author Walter Willett, MD, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Boston’s Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.
Be Careful With Supplements
A host of dietary supplements are sold as brain-boosters. But they have no benefit for most people, says a report by AARP’s Global Council on Brain Health. And 2020 research found that some may contain unapproved drugs. Still, omega-3 fatty acid supplements may be worthwhile for those with a family history of dementia, says Mosconi. Vitamin B12, vitamin D, and folate deficiencies have also been linked to cognitive issues, so consider having your levels tested. Talk with your doctor before using supplements.
Serve Up a Salad
Eating just 1 cup of lettuce daily, or ½ cup of cooked dark leafy greens, may delay age-related cognitive declines, say researchers at Rush University Medical School in Chicago. In their study, the brains of daily leafy greens eaters functioned more than those of people 11 years younger.
Consider the Big 3
Meals that are 1⁄2 produce, ¼ lean protein, and ¼ whole grains, with a bit of fat, will generally keep you on a healthy track. But three plant-based eating plans—the DASH, Mediterranean-style, and MIND diets—which are rich in produce, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and healthy fats found in foods such as avocado, fatty fish, and olive oil, are a boon for the brain, says Weill Cornell’s Lisa Mosconi, PhD. Research supports all three, but a 2019 review published in Advances in Nutrition found that the MIND eating style—which puts more emphasis on berries and leafy greens—seems to have the most robust brain benefits.
Load Up on Berries
These tiny fruits are powerhouses for both learning and memory, says Barbara Shukitt-Hale, PhD, a neuroscientist at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston. In her own research, older people who consumed the equivalent of 1 cup of fresh blueberries each day for three months performed better on cognitive tests than those who were given a placebo. And a 20-year study of women ages 70 and older suggests that eating blueberries at least once each week or strawberries at least twice a week may delay brain aging up to 2.5 years.
Indulge That Coffee Craving
People who drank 2 to 3 cups of coffee plus the same amount of tea daily had about a 30 percent lower risk of dementia and stroke compared with those who sipped neither drink, in a study published in PLOS Medicine in 2021. This may be thanks to the drinks’ plentiful antioxidants and flavonoids, says Small. Note: US guidelines recommend no more than 400 milligrams of caffeine daily—approximately 3 to 5 cups of coffee.
Dine on Seafood Often
You’ve probably heard fish has brain benefits, and plenty of research backs this up. For instance, a study published last November in the journal Neurology found that healthy people over age 65 who eat two or more weekly servings of fatty fish like salmon, tuna, and sardines may have a lower risk of developing vascular brain disease, which can cause dementia. Dining on fin food four or more times weekly offers the most benefit. “Fatty fish is rich in omega-3s, which help quell brain inflammation,” says Willett. “It may also be that fish is a healthy substitution for foods high in saturated fat, like red meat, which can be harmful for brain health.”