Best Memory Boosting Superfoods to Help Combat Dementia
Remembrance: remembering things that happened yesterday and ten years ago, being remembered, feeling that some thing or event or person is worth remembering. You remember how to stand up and walk and use thousands of words without even noticing. All these are such an integral part of who you are, you hardly ever think of memory as the gift that it is. Without memory, normal daily life is not possible.
It’s kind of funny—isn’t it? When you get to the middle of telling what you did today and, suddenly, you forget the point of your story or a special descriptive word eludes you. You may toss this off as a ‘senior moment’ or some other triviality but, as these moments happen more often than you would like, the humor wears off and life looks not so rosy.
These may, indeed, be the result of your trying to do too many things at once or feeling stressed or out of sorts, as can happen even for the young.
Neuroscientists call these mild cognitive impairments (MCIs), and they pay little attention. It means simply that your mind is momentarily not doing what it’s supposed to do, but it doesn’t keep you from living your normal daily life. Alas, however, these apparent MCIs may also be early signs of a progressive loss of memory and other brain functions. In that case, it’s called dementia, and age is a factor.
The more often you have MCIs, the more likely is the onset of dementia.
Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases are most often associated with dementia, which seems like the end of normal life. The good news is there are often lifestyle changes that can slow down and even prevent your cognitive decline.
What Is Dementia?
Dementia is not itself a disease; it’s a condition. Dementia is a condition that is the result of some disease or another factor like a stroke.
The list of diseases associated with dementia is long. Alzheimer’s, Lewy Body, and vascular dementia are among the most common. The less common include Parkinson’s, syphilis, schizophrenia, and boxer’s dementia, to name a few.
Any of the things you do with your brain may be involved, but it almost always involves memory and some change or restriction in your cognitive abilities. Your motor functions and balance may become difficult, and often there are emotional instabilities as well.
What Is Memory?
In the 100+ years that neuroscience has been a legitimate discipline, there have been amazing advances in understanding how your brain works. There are also amazing gaps in such understanding, and the location and mechanics of memory are among them.
There is a tiny part of your brain that looks a bit like a sea horse, and it is called the hippocampus, which is a Latin word for sea horse. This has long been thought to be your brain's memory center. However, research is discovering that most of the functions of your brain are distributed over more than one brain region. This is true of the memory functions of the hippocampus, as well.
An increased concentration of some proteins and other compounds is often found when you lose memory. The effect of this is to impair your brain cells’ communication with one another or even to degenerate and die. Whatever the case, your brain is no longer able to build, store, and retrieve the memories you would like to keep.
How Can You Prevent Dementia?
Preventing dementia is partly a matter of preventing the diseases and other conditions that bring it on. However, research and practice are now showing that degeneration of brain function can often be prevented, or at least slowed down.
As far as we now know, there is no way to reverse dementia once it has begun in earnest. The focus, therefore, needs to be on prevention. There are several lifestyle factors involved, but the three main aspects of prevention are intellectual activity, exercise, and diet. Of these three, the most important is diet.
For background, reputable medical sources provide some relevant facts:
- Eating a lot of non-fiber carbohydrates has been shown to increase the likelihood of MCIs by as much as 89% over those whose diets are low in carbohydrates.
- If you eat plenty of what are called good fats—saturated and trans fats are bad—the likelihood of MCIs goes down by 44%.
- Observing those two dietary guidelines will likely result in lower blood sugar, as well as weight loss.
- People who practice meditation regularly experience less loss of brain cells compared to people who don’t meditate. Consider learning a meditative discipline like yoga.
There are countless ways to stimulate your brain and, especially, memory processing like learning another language, learning to play a musical instrument, or even just reading regularly.
In many cities, there are now adult education programs on a variety of topics. For more advanced learning, university programs like EdX or Coursera provide both undergraduate and graduate courses at no cost.
The important preventive attitude in all of these is to keep learning something new. Related to this is the importance of focus on your learning activity. This helps your brain to integrate the learning experiences into the structure of your memory.
Like other parts of your body, memory is responsive to the maxim: Use it or lose it.
Whether you’re walking or playing tennis, working out or exercising in other ways, you are heading off the possibility of dementia. There are some proteins that work against dementia, and exercise improves the way these are used by your body. It also increases your body’s generation of other proteins it needs for brain health.
The memory-centered hippocampus grows, as well, as a result of exercise. This is the only part of your brain in which new brain cells are made.
If you need a reaching aid, bathtub aids, or some other household aid, then exercise doesn’t necessarily mean running around the block. Do what you can, but if all you can do are some simple hand exercises, and do them regularly, it will go some way toward helping your memory.
Don’t overdo exercise. A half hour a day of intentional exercise may be enough to begin, with appropriate increases over time. Don’t exhaust yourself or get to the stage where you really need sports injury products.
Why Should Your Diet Change?
At base, the problem is with those itty bitty powerhouses that are part of most of the cells in your body. They’re called mitochondria. They are something less than one millionth of an inch in size, and there may be just a few in a cell, or there may be a few thousand.
Mitochondria have multiple functions, but a primary one is to take the nutrients you eat and convert them into a compound called ATP—adenosine triphosphate. This is the primary energy source in your body.
Mitochondria also enable your cells to talk to one another. Dementia is, in many ways, a result of your cells’ inability to communicate.
To be brief, if your mitochondria are healthy, you are probably healthy. If they are not healthy, then you may be heading toward serious illness. Mitochondria are the foundation of your health. If they aren’t healthy, your cells can’t do their jobs and may die.
Here’s the Problem
The problem is that while your mitochondria are making ATP, they are also releasing free radicals. In your body, free radicals have a devastating effect on other structures in your body and, especially, your brain.
In stable chemical compounds, the protons in the nucleus are balanced by the number of electrons found in the cloud around the nucleus. Free radicals, on the other hand, are missing an electron and are therefore unstable.
Because nature craves stability, the free radicals go about your system seeking to capture an electron from some other stable chemical.
The bad part is two-fold: First, when the free radical steals from your genetic DNA, for example, it will likely change unpredictably the nature of some genes as well as their function. Any of your proteins, neurons, and more may be affected by free radicals.
The second and more devastating problem is the chemical from which an electron was taken will, itself, seek completion; this may start a chain reaction of further destruction.
Research has shown, for example, that Parkinson’s disease may be related to free radical damage.
Here’s the Solution
Mitochondria can create ATP from either sugar or fat. A primary difference is that, in converting sugar to ATP, your mitochondria create vastly more free radicals than they do when converting fat to ATP.
That is, diets which are high in non-fiber carbohydrates—chains of sugar molecules—or low in healthy fat are devastating to your brain.
There has been considerable research, including that of integrative neurologist David Perlmutter, MD, that confirm this hypothesis. From this, it’s becoming widely known that one can prevent neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s through diet.
How Should Your Diet Change?
Here are some guidelines:
- Get refined sugar, and especially fructose out of your diet. The popular high-fructose corn syrup should be avoided at all costs.
- Similarly, wheat which is high in gluten, and casein which is plentiful in cow products should be avoided; this does not include butter fat.
- Add to your diet sources of the good bacteria that are needed for your body to extract the nutrients you need. These may come from foods that have been fermented or from supplements called probiotics.
- Keep the calories in your diet low, and take some time to fast regularly.
- There are several vitamins and minerals that are helpful for brain health, but vitamin D and magnesium are primary among these and should be increased in your diet.
- Emphasize natural fresh foods including raw vegetables, fruits, and nuts.
- In terms of repair and maintenance, your body has a lot of work to do while you sleep, and will do this best if not being required to digest a lot of food simultaneously. Try to get your main meal of the day early, say mid- to late morning. Then, in the evening, eat something light, such as a salad.
Generalized inflammation is the major enemy of healthy brain function. Following these dietary recommendations, you will minimize the chemicals that are causative of inflammation. In addition, you will likely experience no-effort, healthy weight loss.
As a caution, a low carbohydrate diet may not be appropriate if you have diabetes or some other diseases. Always consult your doctor before making radical changes in diet.
Antioxidants Neutralize Free Radicals
The goal of your diet should be to change the balance of sugar and fat in your body so that most of the ATP that’s produced comes from fat rather than sugar. That is, you wish to minimize the number of free radicals created, and to provide nutrients that will get rid of the free radicals that are produced.
Antioxidant chemicals are those that neutralize free radicals. Your body naturally makes these and requires raw material from your diet to do so. The foods that are best at dealing with free radicals are those containing beta-carotene, along with vitamins C and E. In addition, a trace of the metallic mineral called selenium is needed.
Here is a short list of sources of antioxidants:
- Oils from fish, coconut, and vegetables.
- Raw nuts and seeds.
- Whole grains.
- Fruits, including peaches, cantaloupe, citrus, apricots, and strawberries.
- Green bell peppers.
- Leafy green vegetables like spinach, chard, and kale.
- Others: cabbage, broccoli, eggs, carrots, squash, yams, and tomato.
Next, is one of the best nutritional foods that is seldom mentioned.
Chocolate Is a Superfood!
Theobroma Cacao, the cacao tree of Central and South America, is the source of almighty chocolate. Its name is based on the Greek words Theos, which means God, and Bromo, which is food. Food from and for the gods is a very good description of chocolate!
Chocolate is replete with antioxidants that are found in flavonoids, especially flavonol. Flavanol is instrumental also in getting more blood to your brain as well as reducing blood pressure and the likelihood of blood clots.
As a side benefit, Harvard researchers discovered that consuming high flavonoid foods at least three times a week was influential in reducing erectile dysfunction in men as they age; folklore has always been clear that chocolate is an aphrodisiac.
Anandamide is a neurotransmitter chemical found in chocolate and is probably responsible for your feeling good after eating it. It produces a protein called BDNF that is known to help preserve neurons.
Chocolate contains good amounts fiber, iron, magnesium, manganese, potassium, and phosphorous. It also has the selenium you need. If that weren’t enough to get you to rush out to get some chocolate, it also helps to increase good cholesterol and reduce bad cholesterol.
In addition to probiotics, your digestive system needs some dietary fiber to nourish your gut bacteria. These are called prebiotics, and chocolate is one of them.
Not All Chocolate Is Good
The cacao beans that are the source of the benefits in chocolate are not in themselves very tasty. In fact, they are extremely bitter. To make them palatable, they are subjected to a variety of processes, including fermenting, grinding, roasting, and more. Then, sugar and other additives are used to make chocolate taste the way you expect it to taste. Unfortunately, some of those additives destroy the benefits found in the cacao beans. For example, adding milk to chocolate undoes its antioxidant properties.
You need to eat chocolate that retains as much as possible of the original cacao. Seventy per cent is probably high enough, but 80% dark chocolate is even better. This level is available from companies like Equal Exchange. The resulting bars are delicious, containing only cacao, raw cane sugar, and vanilla beans.
More research is showing that, in many cases, dementia is preventable. The path to prevention is not complex, although it may require some lifestyle changes. The most important path, other than intellectual activity and physical exercise, is eating foods that keep your mitochondria healthy. The time to start on this path is now.
- Becky McDowell