Download the FREE SBS Radio App for a better listening experience
Did you know that dementia is predicted to become Australia’s leading cause of death in the next few years? The chronic illness affects almost one in ten Australians aged 65 plus. Whilst there is currently no cure, a nutritional expert for older people believes you can actually cheat dementia by eating better food for the brain.
Dietician Ngaire Hobbins specialises in nutrition for older people. She sees her life’s mission as educating people over 60s about the importance of changing their dietary needs as they age. She’s recently released a book called “Better Brain Food: Eat to cheat dementia and cognitive decline.”
“There’s no magic bullet to actually preventing dementia but what we do know is that if 10 per cent of people over 65 do live with a dementia diagnosis, so that means 90 per cent of the people are not living with that diagnosis. There have to be things that we can do to help your brain and to do well longer.”
She’s encouraging people to eat foods in their most natural form.
“You know, eating vegetables, whatever, that are as fresh as possible, rather than eating them in frozen vegetable patties. There’s nothing wrong with those but that’s a few more steps down the track. Adding in as many of those ingredients in their original form is a really very important way to help your brain - it reduces the levels of a thing called ‘chronic inflammation’ by eating those sorts of food.”
Hobbins emphasises it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to keep your food blend. Spices and herbs like turmeric, curcumin and rosemary, contain useful antioxidants and anti-inflammatory components.
“Make sure that particularly after retirement that you've got some kind of challenge built into your lifestyle. So, you may have taken up a new hobby or taken up a new pass time that involves using your brain, getting up and meeting new people, it’s very important because if you don't use it you lose it.”- Associate Professor Michael Valenzuela, The University of Sydney
“So antioxidants are substances that are in foods that happen to give a colour to most foods that we eat. Those antioxidants protect your brain cells and your other body cells against damage and so even though we can't say this one will save you, or that one will save you. What we can say is that over the many years we’ve got, and the longer we live, the more of those things you can be eating, the more chance that you’ll get very good protection. I would try to say to people, eat as many different colours on your plate as you possibly can.”
You can also choose certain types of oil to protect your ageing brain.
“The oils from nuts and seeds are very helpful, including things like olive oil, but also other things that are made from seeds and nuts are also really helpful in assisting your brain cells to do a lot of the work that they do.”
And it’s also about keeping your gut healthy.
“The bacteria that live in your gut speak to your brain, and your brain speaks to your gut, and they actually help each other out. So, if you keep your gut bacteria happy and that means by eating lots of fibrous food, some fermented foods, then you also are benefiting your brain.”
Associate Professor Michael Valenzuela leads the regenerative neuroscience group at Sydney University’s Brain & Mind Research Institute. He agrees that eating the right kind of diet is generally good for your brain.
“It may have a positive impact in terms of your overall cognition or your overall risk for dementia but that evidence is probably relatively mild or weak compared to other types of interventions and changes to our lifestyle that we can make.”
He says heart health is just as important as brain health in preventing dementia.
“So all those things we know are good for our heart like stopping smoking, and getting diabetes under control, or watching your weight, and so forth. All of those risk factors for, say, heart attack, are also risk factors for dementia. So, it’s very important that we take our blood pressure seriously, blood glucose seriously, and body weight cos all of these things have their own specific risks for dementia as well as for heart disease.”
As well as being on top of your general health checks, Dr Valenzuela advises giving your brain ongoing challenging exercises to function at its best.
“Make sure that particularly after retirement that you've got some kind of challenge built into your lifestyle. So, you may have taken up a new hobby or taken up a new pass time that involves using your brain, getting up and meeting new people, it’s very important because if you don't use it you lose it.”
We may be a long way from finding a cure for dementia, but in the meantime, you can always learn more about how to maximise your brain health by checking out the Your Brain Matters website. If you’d like more information on how to manage life with dementia, you can call the Alzheimer’s Australia helpline on 1800 100 500 or visit their website. You can also contact the National Dementia Helpline through the Telephone Interpreting Service on 131 450.