We all have memory lapses now and then, but sometimes those problems become more persistent and serious. When my father's memory started to fail, he wasn't too worried at first. But as time went on, it was tragic to see his connections with the family break bit by bit, eventually robbing him of everything that mattered in life.
Most people imagine that memory loss, and even the onset of Alzheimer's disease, is just part of getting older. But research shows that it is not inevitable. We can indeed fight it. In 2003, researchers with the Chicago Health and Aging Project reported a groundbreaking discovery. They had carefully analyzed the diets of thousands of people and tracked their health as the years went by. For the researchers tallying how much their subjects ate, one particular element came into focus: Saturated fat appeared to be strongly linked to Alzheimer's disease. People who tended to steer clear of this waxy fat found in animal products seemed to cut their risk of Alzheimer's by more than two-thirds, compared to subjects who ate larger amounts of it.
Dairy products, meat and eggs are loaded with saturated fat. A person who consumes two eggs, a strip of bacon, a chicken thigh (without the skin), a glass of milk and a small pizza over the course of a day eats enough saturated fat to be considered part of the high-risk group in the Chicago study. Vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans, on the other hand, have virtually no saturated fat. Building your menu from these foods helps you skip "bad fat" — and does your brain a huge favor.
How does saturated fat harm the brain? For starters, "bad fat" tends to increase your cholesterol level. High cholesterol is linked to heart attacks, of course, but it also boosts one's Alzheimer's risk. In the 1960s and 1970s, researchers at Kaiser Permanente in Oakland, Calif., measured the cholesterol levels of thousands of middle-aged people and then tracked the health of 9,844 of them for three decades. It turned out that those with the highest cholesterol levels in midlife had a significantly higher risk of Alzheimer's 30 years later.
Part of the reason: Fatty diets and high cholesterol levels seem to cause the brain to produce more beta-amyloid, a protein that collects in microscopic clumps, contributing to the potential for Alzheimer's.
Limiting our risk of Alzheimer's is significant: There are 5.5 million Americans living with the disease today, a number federal researchers expect to triple by 2050. According to Alzheimer's Association estimates, 1 in 10 people over age 65 have the disease — and it will attack half of us by age 85.
What Can You Do?
The best first step you can take for your brain — not to mention your heart and all the rest of you — is to avoid animal products. At breakfast, have a big bowl of oatmeal with cinnamon and raisins. If sausage is your thing, try one of the many delicious vegetarian alternatives sold at health-food stores and an increasing number of major supermarkets.
At lunch, have vegetable chili or a veggie burger instead of the usual meat versions. If you're eating dinner at an Italian restaurant, start with a glass of wine, if you like. Follow it with a green salad and a hearty bowl of minestrone, lentil soup or pasta e fagioli. Top your pasta course with wild mushrooms, artichoke hearts and chunky tomatoes instead of greasy ground beef. You can even finish with an espresso. Then pat yourself on the back: You've skipped animal products for an entire day and your brain is better for it.
(MORE: Want to Age Well? Learn New Tricks, Not Facts)
Some foods and beverages offer your brain special protection. Nuts, for example, are rich in vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant that can help cut your risk of Alzheimer's disease. The amount that appears to do the trick is about 8 milligrams per day. (Just one ounce of nuts or seeds delivers about 5 milligrams.) University of Cincinnati researchers found that drinks like grape juice and blueberry juice, which are rich in anthocyanins, the type of antioxidants known as flavonoids, can help boost memory in older people. Two cups a day seems to be the optimal amount.
You could also take a vitamin B12 supplement daily, especially if your doctor tests your level and finds it to be low. The nutrient is essential for healthy nerves and blood, but 30 percent of people 50 and older cannot absorb it very well from food because of a thinning of their stomach lining. The B12 in supplements is more easily absorbed. The recommended daily allowance is just 2.4 micrograms, an amount exceeded by all common multivitamins.
Risks You Can Avoid
A look inside the brain of a person with Alzheimer's disease shows not just the clumps of amyloid protein I mentioned earlier. Within those clumps are traces of harmful metals, especially iron and copper. Just as iron rusts and copper corrodes, these metals do the same thing in your brain. As they oxidize, they release dangerous molecules called free radicals, which can damage brain cells. (Antioxidants may protect your cells from the effects of free radicals.)
Of course, the body needs a trace of iron, which green vegetables and beans easily provide. But we can get an excess of iron from eating red meat and using cast-iron cookware. We also need traces of copper to power certain enzymes. But an unwanted load of copper can enter our body through copper pipes and from consuming liver and some multivitamin tablets. (Always read vitamin labels and choose products that are free of iron and copper).
Finally, let's say a word about exercise. Getting your heart pumping has many benefits — and protecting the brain is at the top of the list. In just one of many recent studies supporting this idea, University of Illinois researchers asked a group of adults to take a brisk walk three times a week. Over time, this easy exercise program reversed the expected age-related shrinking of the brain.
So here's the bottom line: Skip the "bad fats." Emphasize vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans. Be on the lookout for excess iron and copper. Get plenty of exercise — physical and mental — and lots of rest and sleep. And be sure to let your friends and loved ones know the great news — there is a lot you can do to protect your memory.