Keeping Your Brain Healthy, No Matter Your Age

By: Rolando Ania, MD

July 09, 2021

Man hiking at sunset

It’s true there is no cure for dementia, yet studies suggest your life choices today can reduce brain decline in the future.

How important is diet to brain health?

Food is the foundation of your body. Fats, carbs and protein provide the energy for your cells and metabolism. So the quality and amount of food you eat directly affects your brain. Specifically, researchers are paying special attention to the link a high sugar diet and/ or an unhealthy fat diet may have on your brain.

Your brain on sugar

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, when too much sugar is in the bloodstream for long periods of time, it can damage the brain cells. Many people with diabetes may develop brain abnormalities, and these changes may increase chances of dementia — research is still being done to understand this connection.

Many U.S. adults have prediabetes with blood sugar higher than normal. Insulin resistance often leads to diabetes. Insulin resistance has been linked to metabolic syndrome, which is a precursor for cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease (heart attack, stroke). Some signs of metabolic syndrome include:

  • Large waist size (40 inches or more for men, 35 inches and up for women)
  • Low HDL (good) cholesterol level
  • Higher than normal blood pressure — 130/85 and above

Current research suggests too much sugar in the blood causes inflammation, which can damage brain cells.

High carbohydrate foods, such as sweetened beverages, chips, white rice, white potatoes, bagels, cereals and desserts, have been shown to raise blood sugar. Although anyone can get diabetes, Hispanic Americans and African Americans are at greater risk.

MIND your diet

The Alzheimer’s Association recommends both the Mediterranean diet and DASH (Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension) diet. The brain friendly MIND diet is a combination of the two eating plans. MIND stands for the MediterraneanDASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay.

This diet tries to prevent dementia and age-related brain decline. To some, this eating plan is common sense — basically eating plants while limiting meat, saturated fat and sugar in your diet.

Foods to eat on a MIND diet include:

  • Fish: omega-3 fatty acids are found in fish and some seafood
  • Olive oil: both for cooking and drizzling on salad
  • Vegetables of all kinds: especially green leafy vegetables such as spinach and kale (do not overcook)
  • Berries: the more color the better
  • Fiber-rich foods: this includes oatmeal and beans
  • Unsalted nuts

There’s no need to change your diet all at once. One or two changes a week is key for long-term success. Keep in mind, frozen vegetables and berries are just as nutritious as fresh, and often more budgetfriendly.

Notably, this diet limits alcohol. Although wine is permitted, it is a modest serving of no more than five ounces per day, no matter the size of your glass. Once you make changes to your diet, it is important to stay consistent.

Keep active

It’s no secret that a brisk walk is good for your heart and lungs. And it’s good for your brain too. Exercising for 30 minutes a day is also recommended to keep the blood flowing to your brain.

Make sure you are getting adequate rest and also challenging you brain with a new hobby, learning a new language, reading books, playing an instrument or even completing word or number puzzles.


A structured sleep pattern, while adhering to overnight sleep of around 7-8 hours, has shown to also diminish risk for dementia.

Certainly, your lifestyle affects your brain. With this in mind, we recommend you visit your primary care provider to discuss specific concerns such as diabetes, weight, cholesterol or blood pressure, which affect your brain health.

Rolando Ania, MD, is Division Chief of the Renown Institute for Neurosciences.


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