Throughout our lives, we value our relationships, physical and emotional health, core values, and our efforts at finding meaningfulness in a complicated world. But as we enter middle age and beyond, the loss of cognitive capacity — our ability to perceive and respond effectively to the daily needs and unexpected situations that arise — is one of the top health concerns of our time. Without robust brain function, all other concerns come in second place at best.
Aging starts with the immune system
Brain function is profoundly influenced by immunity. Why is this?
Scientists that specialize in investigating aging processes increasingly think that aging starts with the immune system. This makes a lot of sense, because immunity tends to become imbalanced as we grow older. This is evidenced by the tendency towards the discomforts of inflammation, whether in joints, lungs, digestion, blood vessels, or even brittle mood. Changes like these are so common that they’ve been called “inflamm-aging” — the link between aging and inflammation is THAT strong.
You may think that cognitive problems in aging are just a kind of unavoidable breakdown in brain function, but the fact is that our brains are constantly reorganizing and remodeling themselves. Every single day, nerve cells (neurons) in our brains are making — and breaking — connections with other ones, and this is exactly what we need!
Every day, life reinforces which memories and experiences are highest priority for keeping fresh, and which are best relegated to cold storage, since they are no longer as relevant. But with “inflamm-aging,” the balance between making and breaking these links in your brain’s network can become altered such that a person may lose more-important ones while holding onto less-relevant ones.
We now understand that, despite the obvious challenge, people are often able to tell when their own cognition is losing its edge. (If you’re concerned about your cognitive function, though, don’t hesitate to consult your healthcare practitioner.) In research, a person’s subjective sense about their memory and mental agility is frequently confirmed by objective medical evaluation.
Can you name one fairly simple thing that helps maintain the brain beyond middle age? For more on brain health basics, take a peek at this previous posting on Immunity + Brain Health.
For a deeper dive
A study just published in 2021 — though it was over 30 years in the making — provides one very reassuring answer. It followed more than 77,000 health professionals for over two decades, on average, tracking how their consumption of flavonoid-containing foods related to their self-perceived ability to remember and make decisions about the things that were important in their lives. (Flavonoids are a family of plant nutrients found in fruits, veggies, spice, tea, and herbs — more on this below.)
Not many studies involve so many people over such a long period of time, and this one was able to draw some important conclusions:
- The people who got the most flavonoids over time were 38% less likely to see a decline in their own cognitive performance. (Remember that this subjective perception has been found to agree fairly well with medical assessment.)
- The foods that linked up most strongly with cognitive protection included berries (especially strawberries and blueberries), oranges and grapefruit and their juices, cruciferous veggies (especially Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, and cabbage), spinach, yams/sweet potatoes/squash, peaches/apricots/plums, tomatoes and their sauce and juice, cooked carrots, cantaloupe, apples and applesauce, peppers, romaine lettuce, celery, and red wine.
- Crucial finding — the more years folks enjoyed greater amounts of these flavonoid-rich foods, the greater their protection against subjective cognitive decline in later years.
This really reinforces the idea that the way you live from day to day is what sustains your brain from decade to decade! It’s kind of funny — there is such a tradition of planning meals around protein foods, yet considering the common health concerns of modern times, including veggies or fruits at every meal may be a smarter approach. Here’s a link to that flavonoid study, in case you’re interested.