brain health

Q&A With Neuroscientist Dr. Howard Filllit

We’ve been given some food for thought, both figuratively and quite literally. While we’re all about maintaining a healthy diet that’s friendly to our waistlines, we’re also about eating foods that impact both our longevity and ultimate quality of life. Today we’re talking about brain health and giving you tips on nutrition for cognition from the expert himself.

Our brains, like any other organ in our bodies, require food for fuel and proper function. There are however, certain foods that are especially conducive to brain health and that may actually help prevent against age-related cognitive dysfunction. We sat down with renowned neuroscientist Dr. Howard Fillit, who is also a leader of the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation, to gain some insight into the future health, nutrition, medicine, and brain function.

Many of our blog readers are in their 20's and 30's. Why should Alzheimer's disease be a concern for them?

HF: Once upon a time we used to think Alzheimer’s disease (AD) was a form of senility and that people who displayed symptoms were simply becoming senile in their old age. But what we’ve learned in studies over the last 10-15 years shows that AD can start early in life. The same way heart disease can develop early on and eventually result in a heart attack. Young people who are aware of a family history of heart disease may prevent the heart attack by maintaining a heart healthy diet - well, the same holds true for the brain. All of the measures you take to protect your heart you should also take to protect your brain (ie. obesity is a risk factor because it’s associated with inflammation). One of the most important things to note is that we build our brains early in life, which gives us cognitive reserve. This relates to how well we build our brains during critical years and in our 20’s and 30’s when we’re socially engaged.

Young people in their 20’s and 30’s should be concerned about AD for several reasons. 1) If they have a genetic predisposition to AD, as it affects 1 in 3 people age 80 and above. 2) AD is also a huge economic burden to society. Deaths from cancer and heart disease are actually declining, while AD-related deaths are growing. It is the most expensive disease, as it encompasses costs of long term care and reduced productivity at work. It’s costing about $250 billion per year and could ultimately bankrupt medicare if we don’t find a cure or means of prevention.

How does nutrition impact Alzheimer's disease?

HF: There are two basic ways. The first relates to obesity. Obesity, as previously mentioned, is associated with inflammation which causes cell damage and cell death. The second relates to vitamin deficiencies that are bad for your brain. For example, if you are vitamin D deficient, the vitamin D receptors in your brain are also void and as a result you could exhibit cognitive impairment. B vitamins are important too. For example, it is common for alcoholics to be thiamin deficient (vitamin B1). This results in more rapid rates of brain atrophy. Vitamin B12 is tested routinely as it could be a cause of pernicious anemia. DHA, coming from omega-3 fatty acids is critical for brain function. Omega-3 fatty acids and DHA make up the myelin sheath and neurons (the myelin sheath insulates neurons and is vital for neuronal communication).

Are there any foods that may put people at increased risk for developing Alzheimer's?

HF: There are certain diseases that increase the risk for cognitive decline, like diabetes, especially if it’s uncontrolled. It is therefore important to properly manage diabetes to protect both your brain and heart. AGEs, which stand for advanced glycation end-products, are bad for your brain and are associated with more amyloid deposition (AKA plaque formation associated with AD).

*note: AGEs are proteins in the body that become “glycated” or attached to sugars, which alter the structure and therefore function of proteins.

The Mediterranean diet is associated with a reduced risk of AD. This diet includes lots of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, fish, and olive oil.


4 Foods For Thought...

It's common knowledge that you need food for energy and muscle repair, but what you might not realize is that certain foods can help to boost your memory, improve your mood, and provide protection against age-related cognitive diseases like Alzheimer's or Parkinson's. As any organ in your body requires nutrients for growth and maintenance, your brain is no exception. 

We're sharing with you via mindbodygreen our piece featuring our top four foods that you should include in your diet for brain health. Be sure to try our recipe for the "brain buster smoothie," aka an awesome smoothie that contains all of the recommended ingredients!

Check it out here: 4 Best Foods for Brain Health + The Smoothie That Has 'Em All

Food For Thought This September

The month of September always seems to signify new beginnings. Now that BBQ season is over and late night beach bonfires no longer tempt you with a s'more (or two), it feels like the right time to settle into your routine. We set goals for ourselves come Fall. Back to work, back to school, back to getting your diet on track, back to eating healthy to increase your productivity. That's why today we're talking nutrition for cognition.

It’s not news that you need food for energy and muscle repair. But what you might not realize is that certain foods can help to boost your memory, improve your mood, and provide protection against age-related cognitive diseases. As any organ in your body requires nutrients for growth and maintenance, your brain is no exception. In fact, at rest your brain uses somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of your energy intake, and even more when you’re problem solving. Now do you understand why it can be difficult to concentrate when you skip a meal? You should, however, be smart about the foods you choose to fuel your brain, because when it comes to cognition, not all calories are created equal.

Dark berries: This means blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, acai berries, etc. These guys get their dark skin from a class of phytochemicals called anthocyanins, which are potent antioxidants. Remember, antioxidants are molecules found in foods that inhibit cell damage. As we age, our cells inevitably become damaged by means of normal metabolic activity. Think about it like this – when you buy a new computer, it works smoothly at high speed. As you download more programs, leave windows open, and perhaps spill the occasional beverage on your keyboard (guilty), it slows down and becomes less efficient. Well, the same goes for your brain. Not to mention, your brain is particularly susceptible to oxidative injury thanks to its demanding metabolic rate. This is why it is important to get those antioxidant foods into your diet, to combat cell damage and protect your neurons.

Nuts: Walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, cashews… You get the picture. We’re going to reiterate the antioxidant concept discussed above for a moment. Nuts are a major source of vitamin E, also a potent antioxidant that, according to research, presents promising outcomes for both prevention and treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. When we’re young, we think we’re invincible and nothing bad can happen to us. We’re telling you to eat smart because worldwide, more than 26 million people suffer from Alzheimer’s disease and if actions aren’t taken to prevent or delay its onset, the number of people affected by it is anticipated to double over the next 40 years. Try making a doggy bag of homemade trail mix to bring to work with you and, if you want to go nuts, throw in some dark chocolate for an added boost of antioxidants.

Hemp, flax & Chia seeds: You’ve probably been wondering why it’s uber trendy to drink Chia-infused beverages, add flaxseeds to your morning oatmeal, or swap cow’s milk for hemp milk in your smoothie. Well here’s a good reason: these seeds are rich in omega-3’s. Why do we need omega-3s? They are an essential fatty acid (EFA), meaning our bodies can’t make them on their own, so we must consume enough from our diets. EFA’s are important for nervous system, vision, immune and inflammatory function. Furthermore, our brains are made up of about 60 percent fat, so it is imperative that we consume EFA’s to provide our brains with adequate reserves. 

Leafy greens: As if you need another reason to include greens in your diet. Aside from the fiber and antioxidant content, green leafy vegetables like spinach and turnip greens are sources of B vitamins. These vitamins are major players when it comes to brain function, and in fact, low levels of B vitamins have been associated with learning and memory dysfunction. Other dietary sources include dried beans, peas, bell peppers, garlic and bananas.