Food as medicine: eating for a healthy ageing mind

Here in the UK much has recently been written about our ageing population. In fact in a recent editorial from the Independent newspaper it is reckoned that, in the last 30 years,  there has been a 5 fold increase in the number of people reaching 100. Last year the number living into their 90s reached 465,00 - that's equivalent to the population of a city like Edinburgh. In fact, here in Britain, we're way ahead of countries like Norway, the USA and Australia. However, still at the forefront of longevity is Japan; with half as many people again as in the UK  reaching 90.

Evidence confirms that brain function reduces with advancing age. According to the Alzheimer's Society 1 in 3 people over the age of 60 will develop dementia. However, fear not. None of this is inevitable and there's a lot that we can do for ourselves to reduce the risks.

According to the Alzheimer's Society the causes of dementia are down to an interplay of diet, lifestyle, genetics and the environment. The good news is that, as with the  heart disease, you can reduce your  risks by -
  • Exercising regularly
  • Eating a high protein low carbohydrate diet
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Not smoking
  • Not drinking alcohol or at least keeping within normal limits.
  • Controlling high blood pressure and cholesterol
  • Maintaining good blood sugar control particularly if you have diabetes 
On the specific issue of diet and mental function, there's a lot of evidence that supports the benefits of certain foods on brain function. Much of the credit for discovering how food can affect brain function lies with the neuro-endocrinologist  Dr Richard Wurtman and his colleagues at the Massachussets Institute of Technology (MIT). Without getting too technical it's all about the action of neuro-transmitters. There is some scientific debate about Dr Wurtman's theories. However, there is a broad consensus that a high carbohydrate diet causes sluggish thinking and reduces brain function. Whilst high protein food enhances activity and counter balances these sluggish effects.

According to Jean Carper in her best selling  book - Food you Miracle Medicine - there's a varied array of foods that help the ageing brain. People of advancing years should ensure that they get their daily quota of thiamin, ribofavin, carotene, iron, zinc and boron. The best sources of which are found in the following foods-

  • Thiamin  - found in nuts and meat 
  • Riboflavin  - found in liver, milk, almonds
  • Carotene - mainly found in dark leafy green vegetables and deep orange fruit and vegetables
  • Boron - the ultimate brain food found in fruit (eg apples, pears, peaches) and nuts
  • Zinc - found in fish, particularly shellfish
  • Iron - found in greens, liver shellfish, red meat and soya beans
According to US researcher  Dr James Pentland the amount of vitamins required to restore top mental functioning is small. He suggests that the recommended daily dose (RDA) could easily be taken in food. For example the RDA for boron can be obtained by eating 2 apples and 100g of peanuts/day.

Recently,  there's been some debate about  the role of  meat, aluminium and  living close to power lines as risk factors for dementia.  However, according to the Alzheimer's Society, there's no supporting  evidence for this. There's also no evidence to support that turmeric, gingko, ginseng, statins, HRT or coffee protects against dementia.

For tips about how to reduce your exposure to toxins in your food and the environment The Functional Nutrition Cookbook comes highly recommended.

The challenge now  is to find creative ways of putting all this lovely food onto your plate in  a way that fits in with your lifestyle and budget.

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