Dementia is like a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces. Forgetfulness, confusion, memory loss, and poor judgment, things that interfere with normal daily functioning, can all be symptoms of this frightening condition.
A lot of people worry about developing dementia because we don’t really know why it occurs and, therefore, we don’t know a definitive way to prevent it. Upwards of 5 million people in the United States alone suffer from the condition, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It’s more prevalent in folks over age 65.
Clinical statistics suggest that keeping blood pressure at a healthy level, not smoking, not being overweight, exercising regularly, eating a healthy diet, and challenging your brain all seem to play a part in prevention. And because we eat every day, our diet may have the greatest single impact.
For many of us, breakfast may be the one meal we have the most control over because it’s usually eaten at home, and we can make sure it contains key nutrients like antioxidants, vitamins, and fiber.
“Breakfast is an opportunity to fill your body with foods that can slow aging and postpone chronic conditions like dementia in your later years,” says registered dietitian and diabetes educator Justine Chan, RD, owner of YourDiabetesDietitian. “Plus, as we know from studies in kids, they do better in school with breakfast, so chances are, you’ll have a sharper brain on a healthy breakfast.”
The following are five of the best breakfast habits to adopt for brain health, according to dietitians.
If you’re late for work and have no time for breakfast, pack a stash of shelled walnuts in your purse or briefcase to snack on during your commute.
“Walnuts are an excellent source of ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), a form of omega-3 polyunsaturated fats,” says registered dietitian Molly Hembree, MS, RD, LD, a member of our medical expert board. “You get 2.5 grams per ounce of these brain-boosting nuggets, which could play a role in fighting dementia.” Plan ahead: bake walnuts into homemade breakfast muffins for an on-the-go snack.
You probably know that eggs, almost any way you cook them, are a high-protein and satiating breakfast that’s been shown to help people who eat them regularly lose weight and build muscle. They also build brainpower in children. Studies suggest that kids who eat eggs with their yolks improve short-term learning, attention, and memory scores versus kids who eat egg whites or yogurt.
It turns out that eggs may also help older brains, too, according to a large study involving more than 25,000 people ages 30 to 70 over 21 years. the Frontiers in Nutrition study found an association between egg consumption and reduced risk of dementia, specifically Alzheimer’s disease.
“Eggs contain lutein and choline, nutrients that help protect the brain against cognitive decline,” says medical expert Lisa Young, PhD, RDNauthor of Finally Full, Finally Slim and The Portion Teller Plan.
Low serum levels of certain nutrients like folate, vitamin E, and flavonoids are linked with poor cognitive functioning, memory loss, and development of dementia, says registered dietitian nutritionist and certified diabetes educator Tanya Freirich, RD, founder of Tanya B Nutrition. She recommends her clients regularly breakfast on steel-cut oatmeal, a whole grain that is an excellent source of the B vitamins, including folate and vitamin B12.
“I recommend adding nuts and seeds, such as almonds, walnuts, ground flaxseed, chia seeds, sunflower seeds, and pumpkin seeds, to the oatmeal for added vitamin E, which helps maintain function and prevents cognitive decline,” she says. “Top it with berries or cherries; they contain high amounts of flavonoids, which may be why they are helpful at protecting neural connections and preventing the amyloid plaques that are characteristic of Alzheimer’s dementia.”
One great breakfast habit to get into even if you aren’t a breakfast eater is drinking a smoothie in the morning. But it has to be made the right way, that is, with berries and leafy green vegetables.
“Berries and leafy green vegetables are two brain-healthy foods that are included in the MIND diet, which is associated with better brain health,” says Chan.
Studies suggest that regular consumption of the nutrients in those foods may reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s disease by as much as 53%. Chan notes that only one in 10 adults are eating the recommended number of fruits and vegetables daily, according to the CDC.
Breakfast is probably the easiest meal in which to fall into the habit of eating sugary carbohydrates. If you’re not eating eggs or oatmeal, you’re probably sharing your coffee with a donut, bagel, breakfast pastry, or a bowl of cold cereal.
“In the short term, pastries made with excessive amounts of refined sugar and saturated or trans fats can cause brain fog and mental fatigue due to rapid glucose spikes and declines,” says Trista Best, RDa registered dietitian at Balance One Supplements.
Overtime, these spikes and crashes can have a negative effect on brain health. The same thing can happen when you regularly eat most cold cereals. The amount of sugar and the processed nature of sugary cereals contributes to weight gain, chronic low-level inflammation, and poor gut health.
“The inflammation can slow cognitive function and poor gut health can contribute to poor brain function through the gut-brain axis,” Best says.
By the same token, avoid habitual consumption of sugary breakfast beverages like sweet coffee drinks, especially Frappuccinos, energy drinks, and large fruit juices, recommends doctor of clinical nutrition Su-Nui Escobar, RDNat Evolving Dietitians.
For more ways to protect your brain as you age, read about the small changes you can make to Cut Your Risk of Diabetes.