I eat, therefore I think

A healthful diet is good for your head, too.

For decades, there has been a steady stream of reports linking what’s on the menu to a defence against heart disease and stroke. But it’s only in the past while that the notion of “food for thought” has been making the headlines. And it is indeed timely. A large segment of the population is now clearly interested in taking steps to maintain cognitive function. Many are in search of elixirs, potions or supplements that may stave off a decline in brainpower. But accumulating evidence points to the concept that some of the same healthful eating recommendations that can keep arteries robust may also go a long way in keeping minds sharp.

Changes in blood vessels resulting from risk factors such as elevated blood cholesterol readings or high blood pressure can play a role in promoting cognitive decline just as they contribute to the odds of having a heart attack or stroke. And just as they do in the development of cardiovascular disease, the processes of oxidation and inflammation are also part of the puzzle. But because cognitive decline can happen slowly over time, people often feel they have little control over the subtle changes.

Research, though, is demonstrating healthy eating and active lifestyles may indeed be significant protective factors.

As for the gold standard of healthy eating, especially when it comes to protection against heart disease, stroke and certain cancers, the Mediterranean diet ranks at the top. And according to Columbia University researchers, it’s time to add brain function to the list. In research looking at almost 2,000 American subjects with an average age of 76, the Mediterranean diet was linked to a reduced likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease. It’s an eating style containing plenty in the way of fruits, vegetables, legumes, fish and olive oil and very little red meat, along with moderate amounts of alcohol – a pattern that’s low in artery-clogging saturated fat and packed with a bounty of compounds with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory action.

While many people turn to the medicine chest for their supply of antioxidants, research continues to support getting a variety of these disease-discouraging compounds from food instead. In the ongoing Women’s Health study at Harvard University, researchers found no difference when they assessed the impact on cognitive function of taking 600 IU of vitamin E on alternate days against a placebo in more than 6,300 women 65 years or older. In the battle against heart disease and stroke, other research has linked high doses of vitamin E to adverse effects.

Instead, consider following some dietary advice that’s been around for decades – make sure to eat your veggies. They’re rich sources of a wide assortment of antioxidants. And don’t skimp on the number of servings. Researchers in Chicago followed more than 3,700 subjects aged 65 and older and assessed fruit and vegetable consumption and cognitive function over a six-year period. They found that while fruit intake didn’t appear to be connected to cognitive function, vegetables were another story. Those subjects who consumed an average of just one serving of vegetables a day showed significant decline when compared to those who consumed almost three servings a day.