It takes more than regular walks and the daily crossword to keep your brain in top cognitive shape! What you eat plays a larger role in mental fitness and preventing age-related decline in brain function. Like the rest of your body, the brain needs to be properly nourished from the start for optimum performance. An overall healthy diet is great, in addition there are certain types of food that promote brain health. Here’s a rundown of these brain preservers: 

1. Fish 

Oily fish like wild salmon, albacore tuna and sardines provide docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a type of omega-3 essential for brain development and function, helping neurons trigger and cells regenerate. Long-term intake of adequate DHA has been linked to improved memory and learning ability. People who regularly eat fish are less likely than their peers to have depression. In fact, the American Psychiatric Association has endorsed the fatty acids in fish as an effective part of depression treatment.1  

You can’t start too early! The FDA and EPA agree eating fish is especially important for pregnant or nursing women because it helps with the growth and development of children’s brains and even helps boost IQ.  

Vegans can get their omega-3s from flaxseed, walnuts, chia seeds, algae-like seaweed or supplements.

2. Leafy greens  

Green leafy vegetables like spinach, kale, and collard greens provide vitamin K, folate, beta carotene, and lutein – nutrients that may support brain function and cognitive health.2 Eat at least one-half cup serving of leafy greens daily to get enough of these neuroprotective compounds. 

3. High antioxidant foods  

Powerful oxidation fighters that protect the brain3 are found in vegetables (broccoli, leafy greens), fruits (berries), nuts and the spice curcumin. Antioxidants’ positive effects on neural function are the reason why such foods are encouraged for younger people to slow age-related memory decline and prevent Alzheimer’s disease.  

4. Heart-healthy diet 

A cardiovascular protective diet is an important factor in battling age-related declines in brain function. Cerebrovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and dementia are linked by the circulatory system; vascular cognitive impairment and vascular dementia stem from damage to the vessels leading to the brain. 

Good nutrition in younger people is associated with better blood flow and increased brain size, thus protecting the brain from age-related volume decrease. Also, maintaining a healthy weight may preserve gray matter from dementia-related decline.4  

5. Potassium-rich foods 

Because they counteract the effects of sodium on fluid balance, potassium-rich foods are important to combat hypertension, a well-documented risk factor for dementia. Potassium-rich foods include potatoes, tomatoes, bananas, coconut water, avocado and winter squash. 

The National Academy of Sciences even assigned “managing blood pressure for people with hypertension” as one of the three classes of interventions to prevent cognitive decline.5 And the MIND diet (a combination of DASH “Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension” with a Mediterranean diet) is associated with preservation of stroke survivors’ brain function. 

6. Mediterranean diet 

Following a Mediterranean diet might improve cognitive function in seniors and delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease by a few years.6,7,8 A Mediterranean diet is characterized by high intake of vegetables, legumes, fruits, cereals, fish and unsaturated fatty acids (mostly as olive oil), low intake of saturated fatty acids, meat and poultry, low/moderate intake of dairy products and a regular but moderate amount of alcohol (mostly wine drank at meals). 

7. Coffee 

Coffee consumption is correlated with a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.9 This neuroprotective benefit is independent of caffeine but may be related to the roasting process due to one of coffee’s polyphenolic compounds.10  

The Takeaway 

Whether you choose fish, potassium-rich fruits and vegetables, coffee or an array of heart-healthy powerhouse foods it’s possible to boost brain power, function, and mental wellness while forestalling degenerative brain disease through diet. Nutrition is often the best medicine – now that’s food for thought! 


  1. Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Major Depressive Disorder: The American Psychiatric Association Task Force Assessment of the Evidence, Challenges, and Recommendations. American Psychiatric Association, June 2009. file:///C:/Users/Lilde/Downloads/rd2009_CAM.pdf  Accessed 3/18/2019 
  2. Leafy Greens are Good for the Brain. Gina Shaw. American Academy of Neurology. Brain & Life, Oct/Nov 2018. Accessed 3/18/19 
  3. Brain Foods: The Effects of Nutrients on Brain Function. F Gomez-Pinilla. Nature Reviews Neuroscience. 2008 Jul; 9(7): 568-578. 
  4. Obesity Linked to Dementia Risk– Gray matter atrophy tied to BMI and other obesity metrics. Judy George. 1/9/2019.  Accessed 3/1/2019 
  5. Preventing Cognitive Decline and Dementia: A Way Forward. National Academies of Sciences Engineering Medicine. 2017. ISBN 978-0-309-45959-4 
  6. Mediterranean diet and 3-year Alzheimer brain biomarker changes in middle-aged adults. V Berti, et al. Neurology. May 15, 2018; 90 (20). 
  7. Adherence to a Mediterranean diet and Alzheimer’s disease risk in an Australian population. S Gardener, et al. Translational Psychiatry. 2012 Oct; 2(10): e164. 
  8. Mediterranean diet nutrients tied with healthy brain aging. Catharine Paddock. 12/21/2018. Accessed 3/1/2019 
  9. Coffee and its consumption: benefits and risks. MS Butt, MT Sultan. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition. 2011 Apr; 51(4): 363–373. 
  10. Phenylindanes in Brewed Coffee Inhibit Amyloid-Beta and Tau Aggregation. RS Mancini, Y Wang, DF Weaver. Frontiers in Neuroscience. 2018 Oct 12; 12:735. 

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