Brain-Healthy Foods to Fight Aging

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“Brain Healthy Foods to Fight Aging” There’s an extensive scientific
literature describing the positive impact of dietary plant compounds
on overall health and longevity. However, it’s only now becoming
clear that the consumption of diets rich in plant foods can influence neuro-
inflammation, brain inflammation, leading to the expression of
cytoprotective, cell-protective, and restorative proteins. Just over the last decade, remarkable
progress has been made to realize that oxidative stress and
chronic, low-grade inflammation, are major risk factors
underlying brain aging, so no wonder antioxidants and
anti-inflammatory foods may help.


The brain is especially vulnerable to
free radical attack, and oxidative stress, due to its high-fat content and its
cauldron of high metabolic activity. You don’t want your
brains to go rancid. So you’d think one of the major
fat-soluble dietary antioxidants like beta-carotene would step in, but
the major carotenoid concentrated in the brain is lutein; the
brain just preferentially sucks it up. For example, if you
look at the oldest old, like in the Georgia
centenarian study, recognizing that oxidation is involved
in age-related cognitive decline, they figured dietary antioxidants may
play a role in its prevention or delay, so they looked at eight different ones,
vitamin A, vitamin E, on down the list, and only lutein was significantly
related to better cognition. Now in this study, they looked
at brain tissue on autopsy. By then it’s a little too late. So how could you study
the effects of diet on the brain while
you’re still alive? If only there was a way we
could physically look into the living brain with
our own two eyes.


There is!
With our own two eyes. The retina, the back of our eyeball,
is an extension of our central nervous system,
an outpouching of the brain during development, and right
in the middle, there’s a spot. This is what the doctor sees
when they look into your eyes with that bright light.
That spot, called the macula, is our HD camera, where you get
the highest resolution vision and it’s packed with lutein.
And indeed, levels in the retina correspond to levels
in the rest of your brain, so your eyes can be a
a window into your brain. So now we can finally do
studies on live people to see if diet can affect
lutein levels in the eyes, which reflect lutein
levels in the brain, and see if that correlates with
improvements in cognitive function. And indeed, significant correlations
exist between the amount of macular pigment, these
plant pigments like lutein in your eye, and
cognitive test scores.


You can demonstrate this
on functional MRI scans, suggesting lutein and a related
plant pigment called zeaxanthin promotes cognitive functioning in old
age by enhancing neural efficiency, the efficiency by which
our nerves communicate. Like check out this cool study
on white matter integrity using something called
diffusion tensor imaging, which provides unique insights
into brain network connectivity, allowing you to follow the nerve
tracts throughout the brain. Researchers were able to
show enhanced circuit integrity based on how much lutein and zeaxanthin
they could see in people’s eyes— further evidence of a meaningful
relationship between diet and the integrity of our brains, particularly in regions
vulnerable to age-related decline. So do Alzheimer’s patients have
less of this macular pigment? Significantly less lutein in their eyes,
significantly less lutein in their blood, and a higher occurrence
of macular degeneration, where this pigment layer
gets destroyed. The thickness of this plant pigment
layer in your eyes can be measured and may be a potential marker
for the beginnings of Alzheimer’s. Let’s not wait that long, though. We know macular pigment density
is related to cognitive function in older people.
What about during middle age? One apparent consequence of aging
appears to be a loss of some aspects of cognitive control, which starts
out early, in mid-adulthood, but not in everybody, suggesting
maybe something like diet could be driving some of the differences.
Here’s a measure of cognitive control, showing younger, on average,
do better than older adults.



But older adults who have
high macular pigment, and lots of lutein in the back of their
eyes, do significantly better. These results suggest that the
protective role of carotenoids like lutein within the brain may be evident during
early and middle adulthood, decades before the onset of more
apparent cognitive decline later in life. You can take 20-year-olds and
show superior auditory function in those with more macular
pigment in their eyes. Look, the auditory system,
our hearing, like the rest of the central nervous system,
is ultimately constructed and maintained by diet, and
it is therefore, not surprisingly, sensitive to dietary intake
throughout life, all the way back to childhood. Higher macular pigment is associated
with higher academic achievement among school children. You can look into a kid’s eyes
and get some sense of how well they may do in subjects
like math and writing.


This finding is important because
macular lutein is modifiable and can be manipulated
by dietary intake. OK, OK, so where is lutein found? The avocado and egg
industries like to boast about how much of these macular
pigments they have in their products, but the real superstars
are dark green leafy vegetables. A half cup of kale has 50
times more than an egg, a spinach salad,
or a 50-egg omelet? And the earlier the better. Pregnant and breastfeeding women
should be checking off my Daily Dozen greens servings.


But it’s also apparently
never too late. While some age-related cognitive
the decline is to be expected, these effects may be less pronounced
among those eating more green and leafy, but you don’t know for sure until you put
it to the test, which we’ll explore next.

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