Alzheimer’s disease ranks among the greatest health-care crises of the 21st century, and the numbers become more dire with every passing year. In the first six years of this century, while deaths from stroke, prostate cancer, breast cancer, heart disease and HIV fell, Alzheimer’s deaths increased by a shocking 66 percent. About one in every 10 Americans over the age of 65 now suffers from Alzheimer’s, and every year an estimated 100,000 people die of the disease.
Recipes for Brain Health
But the news isn’t all grim. There are easy, concrete steps every one of us can take to avoid adding to the ranks of Alzheimer’s sufferers and becoming another statistic. Even taking risk factors into account, we can fight to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s altogether—and one of the most effective ways of doing this is by eating brain-healthy foods. That’s right. Eating better might help your brain work better and ultimately stave off Alzheimer’s.
Sound too good to be true? Several recent, large population-based studies have provided strong evidence linking a higher dietary intake of specific foods—those rich in the B-complex vitamins (especially B6, B12 and folate), antioxidants, anti-inflammatories and unsaturated fatty acids—to a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Common foods, many of which you likely already have in your kitchen, can be your frontline weapons in the battle against dementia and cognitive decline.
The Mediterranean diet—which gets its name from the dietary habits of people in Greece, Italy, Turkey and Spain—is built around foods that contain beneficial monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids that work hard for our hearts and brains: fruits and vegetables, fish, whole grains, potatoes, beans, nuts, seeds, red wine (in moderation), and perhaps most central of all, olive oil.
Numerous studies have shown that this plant- and fish-based diet can protect against a number of major health conditions and diseases. While researchers have historically focused mostly on the Mediterranean diet’s impact on heart health, recent studies have shown that eating this way can protect our brains, as well. People who adhere to the Mediterranean diet have lower rates of obesity and diabetes, both of which can be linked to cognitive decline. Another example: Antioxidants protect us from Alzheimer’s, and red wine, the Mediterranean beverage of choice, contains high levels of the antioxidant resveratrol. Leafy green vegetables such as kale and spinach that are popular in Mediterranean countries contain high levels of B vitamins, which are crucial for maintaining brain health.
It doesn’t stop there: Mediterranean people eat a great deal of fish, and the polyunsaturated fatty acids in fish have been shown to protect cognitive health, as have the monounsaturated fatty acids in olive oil. The concentration of fruits, vegetables, olive oil and wine also help reduce inflammatory markers, including white blood-cell counts, associated with Alzheimer’s. And while the diet’s common whole grains and complex carbohydrates such as chickpeas and cannellini beans have no direct anti-Alzheimer’s properties, they do help keep insulin levels more in check than the white bread and refined grains Americans usually eat, which means they help protect against diabetes and, by extension, Alzheimer’s.
In short, almost every ingredient that researchers have isolated as brain-beneficial also happens to be a traditionally “Mediterranean” food. There is a remarkable degree of overlap, and quite a few targeted studies bear out the link between Mediterranean-style eating and slower cognitive decline; a reduced risk of developing mild cognitive impairment (MCI); a reduced risk of progression from MCI to Alzheimer’s; a decreased risk for Alzheimer’s; and reduced all-cause mortality among patients who already have Alzheimer’s.
The Right Lifestyle
Researchers believe that the efficacy of the Mediterranean diet resides not in any single ingredient, but in how the various nutrients combine in our bodies. Compared with traditional single-food or nutrient dietary recommendations, the whole-diet approach is more complicated, especially because it’s also possible that moderate lifestyles in general protect from cognitive impairment. People who exercise regularly, drink in moderation and eat more vegetables than meats have better overall health outcomes than others: healthier physiques, healthier hearts and, yes, healthier brains. But it’s important to remember that—as we haven’t yet definitively identified all the nutrients that drive these benefits—it’s adhering to this diet in its totality that appears to be protective. That’s why the recipes included here combine multiple brain-healthy ingredients. Hopefully this way of cooking and thinking about food will protect your body and brain for many decades to come.