It is Heart Month and a great time to begin making changes to improve our heart health.
As we do, it’s important to consider the link between heart health and brain health.
Maintaining good blood flow to the brain has been linked with delaying the onset of — and even preventing –cognitive impairment, including dementia.
Who wouldn’t want to do all they could to prevent dementia in their senior loved ones?
One way to keep the blood pumping freely to the brain is by keeping all veins and arteries clog free. The best way to take control of that is to eat a heart healthy diet.
For reinforcement of the concept, some autopsy studies show that as many as 80% of people with Alzheimer’s disease also have cardiovascular disease.
Yes, that means we have yet another reason for our senior loved ones to have healthy diets.
It’s important for family caregivers, too!
Heart & Brain Healthy Habits
What we know for certain is that what is good for the heart is good for the brain too!
Some heart healthy lifestyle choices include…
- tobacco cessation
- getting your weight into a healthy range
- keeping your blood sugar in control
- managing or preventing high blood pressure
- keeping cholesterol in check
- being physically active
- staying mentally engaged
- getting regular physical checkups.
All these things will reduce your risk of vascular complications that can impair your brain health.
While no one food has been shown to improve cognition, there is evidence that eating a healthier diet and following a heart healthy meal plan is effective in reducing the risk of developing dementia.
Diet Changes for Improving Brain Function
Because our brains require nutrients carried in our blood or circulatory system in order to function properly, it is important to eat a well-balanced diet that can supply us with key nutrients.
It is additionally important to avoid foods that can impede blood flow and create weakened or blocked blood vessels.
General guidelines for a heart, and thus brain, healthy diet include a meal plan with fruits and vegetables (5 a day), fish, nuts and legumes, lean protein and whole grains. At the same time we should lower our intake of high saturated fat meats, high fat dairy and sweets.
Not only will this type of diet help your cardiovascular system, but also manage your weight and blood sugar.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Include sources of omega 3 fatty acids in your meals. Experts feel these oils help to reduce inflammation in the brain while promoting the growth of new neurons.
Omega 3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated. The best food sources include
- Seafood – Halibut, Herring, Mackerel, Oysters, Salmon, Sardines, Trout, Tuna (fresh)
- Fortified foods – juices, eggs, nuts, seeds, milk, yogurt, cereal, pasta, oatmeal
- Oils – Canola, Walnut, Cod liver, Flaxseed, Soybean
- Produce – Brussels sprouts, Kale, Parsley, Spinach, Watercress
Be sure your meals are antioxidant rich. Foods that contain antioxidants may help protect against oxidative damage to cells. Cell damage is thought to contribute to the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Research has shown that food sources of antioxidants are better than supplements.
The foods with the highest concentrations of antioxidants are red beans, pinto beans, blueberries, cranberries, artichokes, blackberry, prune, raspberries, strawberries, red delicious apples, granny smith apples, pecans, sweet cherries, russet potatoes, black beans, plums and gala apples.
A Mediterranean diet includes relatively little red meat and emphasizes whole grains, fruits and vegetables, fish and shellfish, and nuts, olive oil, and other healthy fats.
- Use healthy oils for cooking and eating – such as olive oil, canola and walnut oil – and avoid butter and margarine.
- Limit red meat by eating fish two to three times a week, skinless chicken or turkey, beans and nuts. When eating red meat use only lean cuts and limit portion to 3-4 ounces.
- Focus the main part of your meal on vegetables. Eat about 8 servings of brightly colored vegetables each day by incorporating them in all meals including breakfast.
- Include whole grains, preferably in their whole, unrefined state such as barley, quinoa, and oatmeal. Use whole grain breads, cereal, rice and pasta. Read the label to be sure whole wheat is the first ingredient.
- Limit processed foods. Eat whole foods whenever possible including nuts, fruits, seeds, cheese and yogurt.
- Have a 5 ounce glass of wine with your meal if desired.
- Be mindful and enjoy your meal. As you eat, slow down and savor every bite. Enjoy the company you keep during your meal and the good food you have. Appreciation of life and its joys is a part of the Mediterranean lifestyle that is incorporated into the diet.
- Limit coffee to three cups a day and tea to four cups.
- Drink calorie free beverages such as water, unsweetened iced tea, seltzer water or diet soda.
- Limit sweets, foods with added sugars, juice, eggs, processed foods, and grains that are not whole.
The following sample Mediterranean diet menu shows you how you can incorporate fresh foods and whole grains into your daily meals. The foods are readily available, low in fat and nutrient dense.
Yogurt parfait with fresh berries and granola
Wheat bagel with peanut butter
Coffee or hot tea
Salad with feta cheese, black olives, green peppers, dried cranberries and artichoke hearts. Top with a balsamic vinaigrette dressing using olive oil
Whole grain crackers
Unsweetened Iced Tea with lemon
3-4 oz. grilled chicken, brown rice, vegetable medley (spinach, tomatoes, zucchini, onion)
Fresh fruit chunks with yogurt dip
5 oz. red wine
Veggie with Hummus dip
DASH Diet – Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension
This is a balanced eating plan that was produced using scientific research on outcomes and benefits for heart health.
Similar to the Mediterranean diet plan, the DASH diet also features foods that are readily available to most people.
It is merely a shift in daily food choices.
It also encourages fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low fat dairy, lean proteins, fish and vegetable oils but includes recommendations for low salt eating. Sodium is restricted to 2,300 mg per day. It includes choices that are no sugar added and high in fiber and potassium.
DASH Eating Plan—Number of Food Servings by Calorie Level
|Fat-free or low-fat dairy products||2–3||2–3||2–3||2–3||2–3||3||3–4|
|Lean meats, poultry, and fish||3 or less||3–4 or less||3–4 or less||6 or less||6 or less||6 or less||6–9|
|Nuts, seeds, and legumes||3 per week||3 per week||3–4 per week||4 per week||4–5 per week||1||1|
|Fats and oils||1||1||2||2–3||2–3||3||4|
|Sweets and added sugars||3 or less per week||3 or less per week||3 or less per week||5 or less per week||5 or less per week||≤2||≤2|
|Maximum sodium limit||2,300 mg/day||2,300 mg/day||2,300 mg/day||2,300 mg/day||2,300 mg/day||2,300 mg/day||2,300 mg/day|
Using the serving information, depending on how many calories you need, you can create meals incorporating the appropriate foods that you prefer.
Grains should be whole for at least half of the amount. Select fruits and vegetables with a variety of colors to get all the nutrients you need. Cook using unsaturated vegetable oils and cooking techniques such as grilling or roasting.
Read food labels to avoid excess sodium intake and don’t add salt to your foods.
It doesn’t matter which diet approach you choose to use, just that you are eating a heart healthy diet.
Experiment with some new foods that you don’t usually eat. There are many recipes available to help you use your new ingredients.
Eating a heart healthy diet, not just for your senior loved one but you as family caregiver, will fight the onset of dementia and help keep both heart and brain healthy.