My grandmother loved her toast and coffee. She always ate simply and modestly, favoring plain meals. She lived to be a 92-year-old great-grandmother, but in much of her elder years, she was in and out of coherence.
One moment she would recollect in vivid detail the day she met my grandfather: She was an abused and orphaned teenager crying in a park, and a young man showed up to console her. Other times she’d confuse my mother’s husband with her own, though he had passed some 30 years prior. Meanwhile, she was oblivious to her daughter's sacrifices to keep her comfortable and happy. It was unfortunate but inevitable—Grandma’s mind was simply deteriorating, as minds do when people age.
The words “anti-aging” have become synonymous with beauty serums and wrinkle creams. But another organ could use more of the anti-aging attention: the brain.
Not that my grandmother’s stark eating habits caused her cognitive decline, but there are a wide array of foods that can help boost the brain's longevity. Imagine a lifetime of making memories over hearty Italian meals, enjoying a rainbow of vegetables, sipping red wine, and nibbling on bites of decadent dark chocolate. If that sounds appealing, that's a good thing: Studies have shown this lifestyle can keep the brain healthy, ensuring a brighter future in the twilight years.
Optimal blood flow to the brain is crucial to cognitive function. When blood is blocked, so is oxygen, leading to a foggy noggin. Nitrites can increase blood flow and oxygen to the frontal lobes of the brain—the areas of concern for cognitive degeneration in elderly people. Whip up some cabbage and beet coleslaw for an nitrite-rich appetizer.
Since the brain consumes much of the body’s oxygen supply, it needs protection against free radicals, compounds that can interact and destroy cell DNA. Since 60 percent of the brain is comprised of fat, it can absorb fat-soluble, free radical-fighting vitamin E well, which in turn maintains brain function and slows cognitive decline. Try a spinach salad loaded with sunflower seeds, almonds, hazelnuts, and broccoli for an abundance of vitamin E. Add some carrots and peppers for luteolin, a nutrient that inhibits inflammation in the brain, combating age-related memory loss. Sipping herbal teas like peppermint, rosemary, and chamomile can also give the body plenty of luteolin.
Just as omega-3 fatty acids are vital for cognitive development in infants, they also keep the brain healthy way into adulthood. High consumption of omega-3 fatty acids has been linked to increased brain volume in women, particularly in the hippocampal region—the part of the brain relating to memory. This increase reduces normal aging-related loss of brain cells by one to two years, according to one of the scientists who conducted this study. Load up on rich dishes of fatty fish like salmon and mackerel with walnuts and extra virgin olive oil to keep the memory sharp.
And what’s olive oil without tomatoes? They go hand in hand in a caprese salad, or atop a light bed of capellini. In fact, olive oil and tomatoes work synergistically in the body. The fat in the oil improves the bioavailability of tomatoes’ carotenoids, which safeguards the fat in the body. Again, since the brain itself is fatty, these carotenoids are key—particularly lycopene, which can protect against Alzheimer’s disease. Toss watermelon with balsamic vinegar, tomatoes, and olive oil for even more lycopene.
Sweet potatoes are also a nutritious source of this antioxidant carotenoid. Roast them with some sage, which has shown the potential to improve young adults’ cognitive function and boost the ability to quickly recall information. Researchers discovered that low levels of a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine correlate with impaired memory; a compound in sage prevents the breakdown of this neurotransmitter.
Finally, wash down a brain-boosting feast with red wine. It contains the polyphenol compound resveratrol, which has been touted for its anti-aging effects—so it makes sense that studies have shown it can improve memory as well. And for dessert—dark chocolate contains flavonoids that may also improve blood vessel function and blood flow to the brain, especially in the hippocampus.
The idea of mental decay is a tough pill to swallow, but these colorful, flavorful foods aren’t. Instead of focusing exclusively on preventing the external signs of aging, consider the importance of anti-aging brain food for sustaining long-term vitality.
Illustration by Karley Koenig