4 simple “swaps” for a stronger brain

woman reading a book in her  home at night

By Dr. Julie Schwartzbard, MD

We’ve all had those moments of losing our train of thought mid-conversation. Or frantically searching for our car keys, only to find them already in our pocket. It’s tempting to call these minor memory lapses “senior moments.” But the truth is aging itself is generally not a cause of significant cognitive decline.

And here’s another key fact that is surprising but true: you can maintain and sometimes even strengthen your brain function. And all you need to do is make a handful of very simple diet and lifestyle changes — “swap” your old habits for new ones.

Swap #1: Eat more fish, less red meat

salmon filet with lemon and herbs

Your taste buds may love a good steak, but your brain seems to have a different opinion. According to an analysis of 6,000 women over the age of 65, women with diets high in saturated fats — like those found in red meat — had the worst changes in their cognitive function and memory over time.

And, to go a step further — although fish is better than meat, the latest data suggests that all forms of animal protein can contribute to worsening brain function. That means the vegan diet is probably the most healthful for the brain.

If you do switch to fish, it also contains beneficial amounts of omega-3 essential fatty acids, an important ingredient for healthy brain and nerve cell formation. Omega-3s can help with issues related to chronic brain inflammation, including depression, anxiety, brain fog and even dementia.

Swap #2: Go nuts

three bowls of nuts in a row

Monounsaturated fats support the production of acetylcholine, the memory and learning brain chemical. Olive oil, avocados and nuts — including top picks macadamia nuts, pecans, hazelnuts, almonds and almond butter — are all rich sources of monounsaturated fats and easy swaps when you’re trying to limit saturated fats like butter and cheese.

Swap #3: Ditch the screens and get more sleep

woman checking her smartphone in bed at night

When you sleep, your brain enters into a sort of “rinse cycle” to clear out cellular waste and other toxins that have built up during your waking hours.

When you don’t get enough sleep and your brain is unable to complete its nightly cleanup, you feel it the next day as fatigue and fogginess. Chronic sleep deprivation also impedes brain neuron function, making you more prone to memory lapses.

If you suffer from sleep troubles, try ditching screens in the hours before bedtime. Smartphones, tablets, laptops and all those other devices we love to use 24/7 emit a frequency of blue light that disrupts production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin — making it harder for you to fall asleep.

Instead, adopt sleep-friendly bedtime habits such as taking a warm bath, drinking a cup of chamomile or valerian tea, and turning the lights down low — or completely off. Darkness helps boost melatonin production.

Swap #4: Satisfy your sweet tooth with berries

woman holding a handful of strawberries

Eating a diet high in refined sugars and carbohydrates can lead to poorer memory and cognitive decline. So for the sake of your brain, it’s time to cut down on pastries, sodas and the high sugar content of processed foods. (Your waistline will thank you too).

To ease the transition from refined sugars, boost your intake of berries — blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries. All kinds! They’re naturally just sweet enough, and berries burst with flavonoids, a group of potent antioxidants that protect brain cells from oxidative damage. Research suggests that flavonoids can improve memory and learning, and protect overall cognitive function.

Want more tips on keeping your brain sharp? Find out more with Dr. Schwartzbard’s article How to strengthen your focus and concentration.