What Are the Best Brain Foods for Older Adults to Preserve Memory and Cognitive Vitality?

Known as “The Bookworm,” Therese is never without one or two volumes tucked under her arm or open under her nose. From a young age, she loved to live vicariously through the adventures of her fictional heroes and heroines. Now that she’s retired, she has even more time to journey through these fascinating stories.

best brain foods for older adultsKnown as “The Bookworm,” Therese is never without one or two volumes tucked under her arm or open under her nose. From a young age, she loved to live vicariously through the adventures of her fictional heroes and heroines. Now that she’s retired, she has even more time to journey through these fascinating stories.
But Therese’s fascination jumped to a new level when she ran across a book that invited her to live the heroic journey in her own life in her later years. In her 70s, Therese began to experience memory loss, and it started to affect her daily life and her ability to live independently. Reading this particular book, she felt not only encouraged by others’ successes but also enlivened by the adventure that beckoned her to dive in.

That book is The Brain That Changes Itself, a collection of stories about real people who were able to rewire their brains’ connections to overcome otherwise chronic disorders like blindness and stroke complications. They achieved these results through dedicated exercises—in other words, their concentrated brain power did the work to change the brain itself. For a long time, it was widely believed that after a certain age, we don’t develop new brain cells—all we do is lose them—and that the brain’s connections and pathways are fixed. Nowadays, neurologists are approaching things differently through the empowering science of brain plasticity. It is this science that Therese decided to put to work in her own life.
Together with her caregiver, Therese started reaching out for guidance and resources to exercise her brain and stretch her cognitive function. In addition to regular heart-healthy physical exercise and deep, quality sleep, they discovered some promising studies about brain foods for older adults—the best foods to help support mental fitness by nurturing the heart and blood flow to the brain.
Just like with any other exercise, Therese would need the fuel to work hard and to help her brain to regenerate and make new connections. It takes relatively small effort to help your aging loved one incorporate these potent brain foods into regular meals when you compare it to the incredible benefits of a healthy body that can promote the brain’s inherent regenerative potential, and preserve memory and cognitive stamina.

Can Brain Food Help Prevent Memory Loss for Older Adults?

Therese and her caregiver, Arianna, explored studies that have found links between healthy habits—such as not smoking, eating nutrient-rich foods, and getting regular exercise—and a lower risk of heart disease. Doctors and researchers have also drawn connections between heart and brain health because the brain depends on the full and consistent flow of oxygenated blood from the heart. So, if something is good for your heart, it’s also good for your brain.
But what foods are actually good for older adults to feed the body and help to preserve memory and cognitive function?

Some of the Best Brain Foods for Older Adults

No list of wholesome foods could be exhaustive or one-size-fits-all because people have particular nutrient needs and intolerances or other limitations. Your aging loved one’s primary physician or neurologist may be able to shed more light on the particular foods that are best for them—for their heart and brain health. But there are some food categories that are helpful to keep in mind. Together, you can get creative with these categories to discover what foods you can help an aging loved one to incorporate into their diet for the long term—as a life-giving healthy habit.

  • Dark greens: You’re probably not surprised that vegetables show up on the list of brain power foods for older adults. Researchers have actually determined that vegetable intake is associated with less deterioration in cognitive functioning—especially the consumption of dark, leafy greens. So, if an aging adult is not already eating a generous portion of vibrant vegetables each day, you can help them to open up their mind and their palate to these versatile brain foods. Try them raw, in smoothies, or in recipes from books or an Internet search. Reach for kale, spinach, beet greens, and even broccoli or other cruciferous veggies. This short list is just a start, so start experimenting and practice including different kinds of greens for a variety of vitamins and minerals.
  • Dark fruits: Blueberries are the buzzword ever since researchers at Tufts found a correlation between their consumption and improvements in short-term memory, learning, balance, coordination, and other motor skills. While blueberries contain the most antioxidants, raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, plums, and cherries are also excellent choices to help heal the body’s cells and prepare the body for progressive brain and memory exercises.
  • Good fats: Our bodies don’t produce essential fatty acids on their own, so it’s important that we include them in a balanced diet. It’s also important to be aware that certain fats are better for us than others. While it’s healthy for the heart to avoid or at least limit saturated and trans fats, it’s also healthy to include moderate amounts of mono- and polyunsaturated fats. You can find monounsaturated fats in nuts like almonds, cashews, and pecans; in cold-pressed olive oil; and in avocados—to name just a few sources. Polyunsaturated fats, such as omega-3 fatty acids, occur in oily fish like salmon, trout, sardines, and herring, as well as in walnuts, flaxseeds, and chia seeds. You can help your aging loved one to review the nutrition facts of the foods they are used to eating now and gradually make choices that favor the brain- and body-healthy fats.
  • Other anti-inflammatories: Now, you may be surprised to find that this list includes powerful anti-inflammatory foods like dark chocolate and coffee. Significant research demonstrates not only that inflammation is a precursor to heart disease, but also that moderate caffeine intake can reduce long-term inflammation and the risk of complications. As always, it’s easy to have too much of a good thing, but especially with the guidance of an older adult’s doctor, you can determine their healthy caffeine limit. And don’t forget about other great anti-inflammatory foods like turmeric, cinnamon, tomatoes, beets, and, well, all the categories we’ve already discussed.

How to Prevent Memory Loss in Old Age

Not all of us seek out and pursue real-life, real-health adventures like Therese did; but it is possible for all of us to find our personal journeys toward our best health and brightest minds. As a caregiver, you are in a prime position to help your aging loved one find their journey. We can’t stop the years from passing by, nor reduce the number of candles bound for our birthday cakes, but we can take actions that support the body’s aging process and even slow it down.
Diet and lifestyle represent changes that most of us can take some control of. With open minds and adventurous appetites, we can guide our aging adults to develop habits for healthy bodies and the brain’s best possible chance of continuously making connections and regenerating its own framework.
Institute on Aging is here to support you and your loved ones on the adventure to aging gracefully and healthfully. For more resources, programs, and other services, simply reach out and get in touch.

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Three and a half years ago, Maggie Fang started her journey as an Assessment Specialist in the Support at Home Program at IOA. Her excellent people skills enabled her to manage a caseload of older adults and individuals with disabilities, helping them receive homecare to age in place. Maggie was selected to pioneer the Temporary Respite Caregiver Support program, and we are delighted to have such a skilled and dedicated individual leading our newest program at IOA. Thank you, Maggie, for your exceptional work! 

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