6 Foods to Improve Cognitive Function And Optimize Brain Health

Tiffany Ayuda
Medically Reviewed
February 14, 2020

Every day, your brain works hard to juggle multiple tasks at a time, compartmentalize memories, and create ideas. But when you don’t get enough sleep , aren’t eating an antioxidant-rich diet, or are skimping on exercise, it becomes more difficult for your brain to function at its best. You might find it hard to concentrate, struggle with brain fog , and forget things more often than usual. With every year you get older, optimizing brain health becomes even more important. Find out why it’s key to healthy aging and how eating the best brain foods plays an important role.

Why brain health matters

A healthy brain has neurons constantly firing off and communicating with each other and to other cells in different organs and muscles in the body. As you age, communication between neurons in your brain reduces, and certain areas of the brain that are responsible for learning and doing complex mental activities shrink, according to the National Institute of Aging .

“We’re living longer and longer, so we need to do everything we can now to nurture a healthy brain. There’s not much you can do when you hit a certain point and that’s a very real fear,” explains Tiffany Lester, MD , a board-certified integrative medicine physician at Parsley Health San Francisco. “Moreover, our healthcare system won’t be able to support everyone who has Alzheimer’s or dementia, so it benefits all of us long-term to take care of our brains,” she adds.

How to optimize brain health through nutrition

According to Lester, protecting your brain health comes down to preventing inflammation , and that begins with eating a healthy diet. “Inflammation is a systemic response to foreign invaders. When we’re not eating enough foods that are anti-inflammatory, it increases the rate of decline for existing brain cells,” Lester says. “There’s a huge brain-gut connection , and the food you eat has the power to drastically improve your brain health. It’s about limiting sugar and carbohydrate intake and maximizing healthy fats and fiber ,” she says.

For example, a June 2018 study in Neurology of more than 4,000 people, for instance, showed that those who followed a high-quality diet of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and fish had higher brain tissue volumes.

When it comes to brain health, Lester also notes that it’s important to evaluate your entire lifestyle. Are you smoking? Do you get enough sleep ? How often do you exercise? “The goal is to identify what those challenges are and live a life that keeps those genes [for Alzheimer’s] off as much as possible. Yes, we might have these genes, but it doesn’t mean we’re going to have Alzheimer’s or dementia,” Lester explains. Lester says the best drug for dementia is actually exercise and sleep because “when our bodies sleep, that’s when we’re detoxing our brains the most.”

While you can’t control your own genetic disposition for Alzheimer’s and dementia and the natural disease risks that come with aging, you can safeguard your brain health by incorporating more “brain foods,” or anti-inflammatory foods, into your diet. Here are Lester’s top foods for optimizing brain health.

The Best Foods for Brain Health

1. Fatty fish

Fatty fish, such as wild salmon , sardines, albacore tuna, anchovies, and rainbow trout, are excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids , which have been linked to better overall health, including brain health. The three main types of omega-3 fatty acids are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Your body doesn’t produce DHA and EPA on its own and your body is able to convert only some of ALA into DHA and EPA, so you need to get these fats primarily through food. DHA and EPA are predominantly found in fish and seafood, while ALA can be found in plant oils. According to a February 2012 study of more than 1,000 people in Neurology, diets low in DHA and EPA are associated with smaller volumes of brain tissue and cognitive impairment, so aim to have fatty fish in heavy rotation in your diet.

2. Berries

If there’s one thing you want to make sure you have with your breakfast every morning, Lester says it’s berries. “I like snacking on blueberries versus grabbing something unhealthy. Plus, they are easy to add to anything,” she says. These tiny jewel-toned fruits are one of the best foods for your brain, packing a mighty punch of age-defying antioxidants and flavonoids. Flavonoids are compounds naturally found in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and tea that work to fight inflammation in the body. Their powerful antioxidant properties have long-been associated with creating a strong defense against a variety of cancers, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s. From blueberries to strawberries, berries are particularly high in vitamin C, which has been linked to preventing the development of Alzheimer’s disease, according to a May 2012 study in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease . Another study in the journal Annals of Neurology observed that women who had higher berry intake delayed cognitive aging by up to 2.5 years.

3. Walnuts

Rich in plant-based omega-3 fatty acids, walnuts add a nutritious crunch to your breakfast oats and make a sensible snack when hunger strikes, Lester says. Keep a bag of walnuts at your desk so it’s easy to grab if you’re running to a meeting. In fact, walnuts have the highest ALA fat content compared to other nuts, and they also contain vitamin E and polyphenols , which help protect against cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases, according to a funded review in the journal Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition. The ALA fat in walnuts has also been shown to help boost mood , reduce depression , and improve cognitive function and sleep.

4. Avocado

It’s not surprising that everyone’s favorite toast topper makes this list. Lester says she carries an avocado with her basically everywhere she goes. “I like adding them to my salads. They make them more filling,” Lester says. That’s because avocados are rich in healthy monounsaturated fat that has been linked to lowering the risk for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Avocados are also a staple in the MIND diet and Mediterranean diet , which have been associated with better brain health

5. Eggs

“I make a bunch of hard-boiled eggs every week because they’re easy to grab and they’re rich in protein , which helps keep you full,” Lester says. She also notes that eggs are rich in choline, a nutrient that has been associated with a lower risk of dementia. A September 2019 study done on mice in Aging Cell suggests that dietary choline supplementation can help prevent the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

6. Extra-virgin olive oil

Lester says it’s important to add variety to the healthy fats you have in your diet, and extra-virgin olive oil is one of the best brain foods that adds flavor and satiating nutrients to your meals. “I keep a bottle of olive oil in my cabinet at work. I use it versus any other salad dressing,” Lester says. Like avocados, olive oil is one of the key foods in the Mediterranean diet and MIND diets because it’s mainly made up of monounsaturated fats. These fats are essential for reducing heart disease, stabilizing insulin levels in people with type 2 diabetes, and lowering the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia. A July 2015 study in JAMA suggests that supplementing the Mediterranean diet with extra-virgin olive oil and nuts can help combat age-related cognitive decline.

Tiffany Ayuda

Tiffany Ayuda is a New York City-based editor and writer passionate about fitness, nutrition, health, and wellness. She has held previous editorial roles at Prevention, Eat This, Not That, Daily Burn, and Everyday Health. Tiffany is also a certified personal trainer through the American Council on Exercise. When she's not writing or breaking up a sweat, Tiffany enjoys cooking up healthy meals in her Brooklyn kitchen.

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