Cognitive decline is more common than you might expect, affecting about 1 in 9 adults in the United States, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Luckily, research shows several daily habits can slash your risk for diseases like dementia — including paying attention to what goes into your grocery cart and on your plate.
“An overall dietary pattern of eating whole foods from a variety of food groups and much fewer ultra-processed ones provides the biggest bang for your buck when it comes to improving brain health outcomes,” says Bonnie J Kaplan PhD, a research psychologist and coauthor of The Better Brain: Overcome Anxiety, Combat Depression, and Reduce ADHD and Stress with Nutrition.
Ultra-processed foods, which are typically packaged snack foods and beverages that contain lots of sodium, added sugars, and saturated fats, appear to be a big culprit in the risk for cognitive decline, but alarmingly, they make up a large portion of the typical Western diet. Replacing just 10 percent of the ultra-processed foods in an individual’s diet with the same amount by weight of unprocessed or minimally processed foods was associated with a 19 percent reduction in dementia risk, according to a study published in July 2022 in Neurology that followed 72,083 adults 55 or older for an average of 10 years. “Poor diets not only fail to provide essential brain-protecting nutrients but add insult to injury by flooding the brain with harmful substances,” says Elizabeth Somer, RD, the Salem, Oregon–based author of Food & Mood.
So certainly, food is one of the most important levers we can pull when it comes to brain health. Some foods have the compounds to help keep your brain performing well, while others lack any of the nutrition necessary to bolster mental health. And you might be surprised by some of the edibles that can help turn back your brain’s clock and improve your state of mind. Here’s your cheat sheet for the foods (and one drink) that you should remember to add to your grocery list to help support your noodle.