Feed Your Brain: How Your Diet Effects Memory and Cognition

Cashews for growing nerve fibers? Olive oil to flush out brain sludge tied to Alzheimer’s disease?

We all like to eat healthfully, especially as we age. The benefits to our heart of a healthy diet are well known, but what about the benefits to our brain? Scientists are increasingly exploring the effect of diet on our brain and discovering exciting “neuroprotective” effects.

Call it grey matter grub—the grey matter of the brain is responsible for information processing. Memory, learning and processing speed are just a few grey-matter tasks that start to decline when we turn grey.

While experts don’t have any definitive proof on diet’s impact on the aging brain, they do see tantalizing clues in some foods that appear to nourish the brain. For instance, certain foods are found to be “bioactive”—they contain compounds that cross into and build up in the brain and then have specific effects on brain function. These effects include brain cell growth, signaling and reduction of brain inflammation. In the future, foods may even be added to therapies to treat brain diseases like multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s.

Below are some top findings on foods that are “neuroprotective” in some way. Findings are based on recent research by neuroscientists and other scientists at Harvard, Temple University, Vanderbilt, University of California, Los Angeles, University of Pittsburgh, Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, and work by Daniel Levitin, MSc, Ph.D., author of Successful Aging.

  • Cashews: A compound in cashew shells promotes the repair of myelin, the protective sheath surrounding nerves.
  • English Walnuts: Compounds in English walnuts can improve brain-cell signaling; boost new brain cell growth; and enhance “autophagy,” which is one way the brain cleanses its oxidant and inflammatory load.
  • Blueberries: Compounds in blueberries called anthocyanins are shown to build up in the brain when eaten regularly; these compounds can jump-start and improve brain-cell signaling. Possible benefits include improvements to short-term memory, navigational skills, balance and coordination.
  • Bran Cereal and Nutritional Yeast: These foods are high in vitamin B12, which is shown to build up the myelin sheath coating nerves.
  • Olive Oil: Olive oil contains a type of fatty acid called oleic acid. This specific fatty acid is shown to boost brain cell growth and signaling; protect against neuroinflammation; and enhance autophagy—specifically by clearing out amyloid-beta plaques and neurofibrillary tangles, the markers of Alzheimer’s disease. Possible benefits from consumption of foods drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil include enhancement of learning and memory and protection against cognitive decline.
  • Porcini and Button Mushrooms: Micronutrients in these types of mushrooms contain important brain growth factors that lead to new brain cell growth and protect against brain inflammation.