Is There Such a Thing as Brain Food?

In general, any food that's good for you is good for your brain. That's because nutritious foods that lower your risk of diseases such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes naturally encourage blood flow to the brain. Your brain, like the rest of your body, needs quality nutrients to work at its highest level. And while you may not be thinking about your brain cells as you dig into your healthy brown-bag lunch, protecting those cells is exactly what you're doing when you eat right.

Skeptical about the connection between good food and a healthy brain? According to the Alzheimer's Association, people who are obese in middle age are twice as likely to develop dementia later in life than leaner folks. People with high cholesterol and high blood pressure have a whopping six times the risk of dementia.

While diseases like Alzheimer's may have a genetic component and can't always be prevented, there's a lot you can do to keep your brain humming along into old age. What should you eat to be as fully functioning as possible? Here are some suggestions:

  • Dark-skinned fruits and veggies. These have the highest levels of antioxidants, which are good for your brain. Be liberal in consumption use of kale, spinach, brussels sprouts, broccoli, beets, prunes, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, plums, oranges, grapes, and cherries. One study of elderly women revealed that subjects who ate the most green, leafy, and cruciferous vegetables had younger mental function than those who didn't eat much of them.
  • Cold-water fish. Fish such as halibut, mackerel, tuna, salmon, trout, and sardines contain plenty of omega-3 fatty acids, which seem to facilitate communication within brain cells and keep their membranes healthy. The American Dietetic Association cites a study showing that elderly people who ate fish at least once a week were significantly less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease than people who banned it from their diets.

  • Nuts. Almonds, pecans, and walnuts contain Vitamin E, which may play a role in lowering your risk of Alzheimer's. Vitamin B12 and folate may help as well.

Aside from preventing brain degeneration, can food actually make you smarter? Scientists at the Burnham Institute have found that rosemary can prevent free radical damage that can cause stroke. Some studies also claim that sage can improve memory. But a recent study involving gingko biloba, long touted as a memory enhancer, found that the herb actually does not improve memory and in fact may cause complications in people taking it.