With more than 37 million Americans older than 65, it's no surprise that the science of staying sharp is getting a lot of attention these days. During the last five years, promising research linking nutrition's effect on the brain has exploded. And it's not just seniors who stand to benefit. Experts say that by the time a person is diagnosed with Alzheimer's, the most common age-related dementia, the disease may have been percolating for as many as 25 years. So encouraging both baby boomers and seniors to eat brain foods is, well, a no-brainer.
Before you advertise the brain-boosting benefits of foods in your store, it's important to remember that no food alone is a magic bullet. The smartest diet will always be a varied one, says David Grotto, R.D., a spokesman for the American Dietetic Association and author of 101 Foods That Could Save Your Life (Bantam Dell Publishing, 2008). "Retailers should encourage their customers to eat smart, but also to take a realistic approach by introducing one new food a week instead of trying to change everything at once." Here are the five foods that scientists say offer the biggest brain boost:1. Fish
Hands down, fish is the superstar of brain foods. The omega-3 fatty acids found in fish?most importantly DHA?have been shown in one study after another to boost learning and memory. In a 2007 study of Norwegian seniors, reported in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, fish eaters scored two to three times better on cognitive tests than people who don't eat fish. In another study last year, researchers discovered that fish eaters were 40 percent less likely to develop dementia.
Why is fish so fundamental? DHA makes up a large proportion of our brains. Grotto, who was an Illinois natural products store owner for 18 years, says, "It's used in the production of neurotransmitters that move signals from one cell to another, and it helps 'grease' the connections so the information moves faster."
Outside of the brain, omega-3s may also keep blood platelets slippery and moving so they bring more blood to the brain. "More blood means more oxygen, so you're less sleepy and more alert," Grotto says. Scientists are also exploring whether other factors in fish, like niacin (which lowers cholesterol that can block blood and oxygen to the brain) or selenium (a powerful antioxidant), may also have a role in the food's brain-boosting powers.
Advise your customers to shoot for two to three 3-ounce servings of fish a week. The best fish are those with high levels of omega-3s but low levels of mercury and other contaminants. These include wild Alaskan salmon, sardines and Atlantic mackerel and herring. The more good fish you take in, the bigger benefit your brain gets, according to the Norwegian study. A good resource for you and your customers: www.OceansAlive.org, where you can print out a handy pocket guide of the best?and worst?seafood.
Oxidation is a byproduct of cellular damage?basically, a rusting of the cells?that increases as we age. It's believed to be one of the main causes of cognitive decline. Scientists say fruits and vegetables help maintain brain performance, thanks in part to their antioxidant properties. That's where blueberries come in. When Tufts University researchers compared dozens of fruits and vegetables, blueberries scored among the highest in terms of antioxidant capability. And a growing body of research on mice supports blueberries as one of nature's most effective brain boosters. In tests against other antioxidant-rich foods, animals fed blueberries outshined the others in balance and coordination. Blueberries have also been shown to aid in the formation of new neurons, reduce inflammation in the brain and increase activity of enzymes that convert short-term memory to long-term. While much of this fruit's power likely comes from anthocyanins?the pigments that give them their blue hue?other phytochemicals, like ellagic acid, may also play a role.
Since human studies haven't been published yet, there's no way to know exactly how many blueberries are ideal. Plus, other berries (strawberries and acai berries, for example)?and fruits and veggies in general?have their own brain-boosting powers, and shouldn't be discounted. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend around two cups of fruit per day, so it's best to simply encourage your customers to choose blueberries often as they work toward that goal.
"Moderate consumption of red wine and Concord grape juice may have an extremely beneficial effect for the brain," says Dr. Giulio Pasinetti, director of the new Center of Excellence for Research in Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Alzheimer's Disease at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. His team is working on identifying the compounds that give these drinks a leg up in terms of memory, cognition and dementia prevention. They've identified two front-runners that are found in high concentrations in grape skins: flavonoids, which give red wine and Concord grape juice their deep color, and resveratrol, which has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Another compound, proanthocyanidin, found in grape seeds, also has tremendous potential.
"Moderate" alcohol consumption means drinking about a glass or two a day, as long as customers have their doctor's OK. But there's no need to take up drinking if they don't already imbibe. "Our studies strongly support that grape juice is just as effective as wine," Pasinetti says. And while Concord grape juice, which is made with skins and seeds, has been shown to have the highest antioxidant capacity among juices, there's evidence that other fruit and vegetable juices have benefits too. In a 2006 study, published in The American Journal of Medicine, men and women who drank a variety of juices more than three times a week were 76 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer's than those who drank juice less than once a week. Have your customers stick with 100 percent juice with no sugar added, and make sure Concord is in the mix.
A 2007 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Human Nutrition Research Center at Tufts University found that animals fed walnuts showed a reversal in age-related motor and cognitive decline. The researchers believe walnuts, which have the highest levels of omega-3s of any nut, may provide the best evidence that plant-based fats (in this case, alpha lipoic acid) have a similar effect on cognition to those found in fish. In another 2007 study, the gallic and ellagic acids in walnut extract were shown to help break down the brain plaque associated with Alzheimer's, as well as inhibit the depletion of acetylcholine, a brain chemical vital for learning and memory.
How much? The animals in the first study were fed the equivalent of an ounce of walnuts, and that's all we need too. That's a handful, or about 20 nuts, a day. If your customers can't stomach walnuts every day of the week, there's no harm in mixing it up. "Almonds have some evidence for cognition as well," Grotto says. "They're loaded with vitamin E, which is one of the strongest antioxidants." And while most nuts pack around 160 calories per ounce, researchers are studying whether they may also have a component that blocks their fat calories from registering as such in the body.5. Coffee and tea
In a 2007 French study, published in the journal Neurology, women 65 and older who drank three cups of coffee or tea a day had significantly less verbal decline over four years than those who drank less. A 2006 study on elderly men showed a benefit from coffee on memory. One explanation, of course, is caffeine?a stimulant that boosts alertness and mood. In mice it has also been shown to limit the buildup of Alzheimer's-related brain plaque. But caffeine may not be the only factor. Both coffee and tea are brimming with antioxidants and other potentially helpful chemicals. Coffee, for instance, boasts more than 1,000 natural compounds. And green tea, which Pasinetti says may also have a very good impact on cognition, contains powerful flavonoid antioxidants called catechins, but only a low dose of caffeine.How much?
About three cups of coffee or tea a day are fine for most adults, experts say. But keep in mind that caffeine is addictive and can cause jitters, high blood pressure and other side effects?plus coffee and tea often go hand in hand with cream and sugar. In other words, your customers shouldn't up their daily allotment just for the potential brain boost. If they're interested in bumping up their intake, green tea, which is low in caffeine, and can be enjoyed as is, may be the best bet.
Jennifer Abbasi is a New York-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIX/number 2/p. 24,28