Aug. 13, 2013 at 5:51 PM ET
Researchers at the University of L’Aquila in Italy studied the results of 90 seniors who were dealing with mild cognitive impairment -- difficulty with memory, thinking and judgment. For eight weeks the seniors drank a cocoa beverage every day containing either low, medium or high amounts of flavanols, the antioxidants that naturally occur in cocoa. The results: Those who consumed drinks with medium and high amounts of flavanols scored higher on tests that required attention and other mental skills compared to the subjects who drank the lowest levels of flavanols. But this isn't a free pass to the candy aisle -- experts say a square or two of rich, dark chocolate is all you need.
Cauliflower contains choline, a nutrient in the B vitamin family that the body converts to citicoline, a natural anti-aging compound. A study conducted at McLean Hospital, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School, concluded that a supplement made from citicoline can increase energy and electrical activity in the area of the brain that is responsible for decision making and focusing.
Hope you like it hot! Scientists at Brown University have discovered that the chemical changes that occur in the brain when you eat spicy food can improve learning and memory. Heat -- as in temperature -- can also be beneficial.
While these seeds are small, they are packed with brain-boosting power, says Neal D. Barnard, M.D., author of Power Foods for the Brain. “They contain the antioxidant vitamin E, which means they stop free radical attacks. Free radicals are responsible for many aspects of aging, one being the aging effects on the brain,” says Dr. Barnard. He recommends eating one ounce (a small palm-full) of sunflower seeds per day.
He also suggests using the seeds as an ingredient in dishes like in a salad as opposed to a snack. “Keep in mind that nuts and seeds are high in fat,” he adds. “While they contain the good fats, all fats are highly caloric.” And when you’re just nibbling on them, there’s a greater chance in overeating.
“Sweet potatoes are one of the most healthful foods ever to pop out of the ground!” says Barnard. “They contain the richest source of beta-carotene, which like vitamin E, is a radical-fighting antioxidant.” He adds that this veggie is also the dietary staple of Okinawa. “And Okinawa is the ‘Granddaddy of Longevity,’” he explains. “Located at the southern tip of Japan, there are more people who live to 100 in this area -- and in good cognitive health -- than any other place on earth!”
This sweet melon also contains beta-carotene, as well as vitamin C. And, according to a study from Oregon Health & Science University, vitamin C may help brain cells from premature breakdown. “As for how much to eat, there’s no need to offer a strict portion size since there is no risk to overdoing cantaloupe!” says Barnard. “And I do encourage people to include something orange in their diet every day, whether it be cantaloupe, sweet potatoes or carrots.”
Are you hoping to learn a new computer program or memorize a speech? Then you may want to get some magnesium-rich rice bran. Research conducted in Bejing, China implies that an increase in magnesium may have the ability to enhance cognitive function in the brain. The study authors discovered that extra magnesium in the diet of rats, both young and old, showed an improvement in their learning and memory skills. The current recommended daily allowance for this mineral is 320mg for an adult female, so a half a cup of rice bran (which would be around 450 mg of magnesium) should do it.
Sipping beet juice may increase blood flow to the brain and improve cognition, say researchers at Wake Forest University. It’s due to the high concentrations of nitrates found naturally in beets. Nitrates have the ability to send extra blood and oxygen to the white matter of the frontal lobes, which are associated with executive functioning. In the study, researchers noticed a difference in brain function in seniors after they drank 16 ounces of beet juice a day.
Not just any cereal -- fortified breakfast cereal. “The fortification is important here because we are looking for vitamin B-12,” says Barnard. He refers to a team of researchers in Singapore who reported that people who had vitamin B12 circulating in their blood had better memory function and better ability to pay attention. “And the breakfast cereals add vitamin B12 in a form that is quite highly absorbable,” he says. When shopping on the cereal aisle in the grocery store, look for the words “vitamin B12” or “cobalamine” (the chemical name for B12) on the label.
Apparently good digestion and good brain function go hand-in-hand. A recent study conducted at UCLA implies that women who regularly consumed probiotics, otherwise known as the good bacteria found in yogurt, showed a boost in brain function, whether resting or responding to a task. Scientists explain that the shift in bacterial environment in the gut stimulates a signal that is sent to the brain, ultimately improving function in the cognitive areas of the prefrontal cortex. Eating a yogurt a day has also been shown to have other health benefits, such as increasing the feelings of satiety and reducing the risk of yeast infections.
Amy Capetta is a contributing writer at iVillage.com. You can follow her on Twitter.