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Keeping your brain sharp as you age

Posted Feb 14 2012 12:45am

Looking towards the future, most people want to live as independently as possible, for as long as possible. What pushes many into institutionalised care is difficulty with mobility, but also cognitive decline into memory loss or dementia.  Here are some nutrition tips to help you maintain a healthier brain so you can enjoy your senior years more.

Brain cells communicate two ways: Neurotransmitters are the chemical messengers , passing instructions from one cell to another; they’re deeply involved in generating thoughts and moods. The other way your brain cells communicate is through electrical impulses.

In a nutshell (no pun intended), your brain is mostly made up of fat, feeding on glucose, protein, vitamins and minerals.  The membrane for every cell is made of fat molecules, a little like oil floating on water. The more flexible your cell membranes, the easier it is for oxygen and nutrients to move in, and for neurotransmitters to be secreted.

Firstly, the more even your dietary omega-3 versus omega-6 fat intake, the more flexible your brain cell membranes are. Our genes want us to consume a diet that contains roughly the same amount of omega-3 as omega-6 oils; a modern western diet supplies only about one part omega-3 to ten parts omega-6 oils. This can create stiff cell membranes that don’t function as well as they could.

Excellent sources of omega-3 oils are seafood (especially oily fish), seeds and some nuts.  The omega-6 component of our diet comes from farmed meat, dairy and hydrogenated oils (artificially modified oils frequently found in processed foods – check the label)

Secondly, your brain cells need a steady supply of glucose as fuel. The key word here is ‘steady’. Wildly fluctuating blood glucose levels can affect your thought processes and your mood. Too much glucose all at once and your brain can get over-active; too little glucose and a ‘brain fog’ can seem to fill your head, making it difficult to think things through.

You can help fuel your brain by keeping sugary foods out of your diet, eating every few hours, and ensuring you include protein and fibre-rich foods at each meal (they take longer to digest, giving you a steadier blood sugar level).

The third important aspect to feeding your brain is ensuring a good supply of protein, vitamins and minerals.  There’s a catch though. As you age, your digestion becomes less effective. You don’t secrete as much digestive enzymes as you need, so nutrients can pass through you mostly unabsorbed. Worse, people tend to eat less protein as they age; chewing can be difficult, or just putting a proper meal together can be challenging.  Some medications can interfere with your ability to digest food, and stress will effectively slow your digestion too. The result can be a downward spiral towards malnutrition.

Water is important too; dehydrated brains don’t function well.

Drink up, eat well, and enjoy your senior years.

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