Staying Healthy Newsletter - <em>Brain Health Part I:</em> Tips for Keeping Your Mind Sharp
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Brain Health Part I: Tips for Keeping Your Mind Sharp

Brain Protecting Basics and New Research

Studies have shown that some basic health habits can help prevent cognitive decline and reduce the risk of dementia: Healthy eating, staying physically active, not smoking, sleeping well, limiting alcohol intake, and maintaining good social connections. Challenging the brain with mental exercise is also thought to help maintain brain cells and stimulate signaling between them. This issue of Staying Healthy takes a look at recent insights into brain protective practices and key strategies for boosting mental function (part II will focus on culinary culprits in brain health).

Get a Good Night’s Sleep. 

All of us can attest to the refreshing feeling that a good night’s sleep provides (and to the mental fuzziness that can result from inadequate or poor quality sleep). But in addition to renewing energy and consolidating memories, brain-protective processes with long-term implications also appear to be at work when we sleep.

In a series of animal studies (1), researchers found that while asleep the brain is busy cleaning out cellular “trash” and toxins that accumulate during waking hours, including proteins (beta amyloid and tau) associated with Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia. While more research needs to be conducted in humans, it appears that insufficient or disturbed sleep impairs the brain’s ability to get rid of this neural waste. Experts suggest 7-9 hours of sleep nightly.

Choose Brain-Boosting Beverages.

Coffee, green tea and cocoa seem to top the list. Coffee (caffeinated) may improve memory according to new findings (2). While caffeine is known to support mental performance, it has been thought to have little or no effect on longer-term memory retention. Researchers showed that volunteers given caffeine right after standard recognition memory tasks, per-formed better at similar tasks the next day versus those given a placebo. 

Two cups of cocoa daily for a month was shown to improve cognitive function and blood flow in the brain among those with impaired neurovascular coupling (3 )– a measure of blood flow in the brain in relation to nerve cells. Other studies have shown that flavonols found in cocoa help maintain the elasticity of blood vessels, which is important for normal brain blood flow.

A number of recent studies are stimulating interest in green tea’s potential to protect brain cells and promote brain performance.  In one study (4), researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to observe the brains of people during tests of working memory – memory that allows the brain to process and store information at the same time. Compared to those getting a placebo, participants given green tea extract had increased activity in an area of the brain where working memory is processed.

Go Mediterranean

Many individual nutrients contribute to maintaining good mental function as we age, including B-vitamins, antioxidants, flavonoids and omega-3 fatty acids. But examining the influence of an overall eating pattern on cognition instead of a single or a few nutrients allows us to study the synergy among these nutrients.

One way of eating that emphasizes brain-supporting nutrients is the Mediterranean diet (Med diet). It includes olive oil as the main dietary fat, and is high in plant-based foods (fruits, nuts, vegetables, beans and minimally processed or whole grains). It also includes ample amounts of fish and seafood, while dairy and meat are eaten more sparingly.

The results of a recent randomized trial found that the Med diet improves long-term mental function in older individuals (5). Study participants assigned to a Med diet plus extra virgin olive oil or nuts fared significantly better on a battery of cognitive tests after 6 ½ years than did those on a low fat diet.


  1. Xie L, et al. Sleep drives metabolite clearance from the adult brain. Science 342:373-7, 2013.
  2. Borota D, et al. Post-study caffeine administration enhances memory consolidation in humans. Nature Neurosci 17:201-3, 2014.
  3. Sorond FA, et al. Neurovascular coupling, cerebral white matter integrity, and response to cocoa in older people. Neurol 81(10):904-9, 2013.
  4. Borgwardt S, et al. Neural effects of green tea extract on dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Eur J Clin Nutr  66:1187-92, 2012.
  5. Martinez-Lapiscina EH, et al. Mediterranean diet improves cognition: the PREDIMED-NAVARRA randomised trial. J Neurol Neurosug Psych 84:1318-25, 2013. 
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