Food for thought

The standard American diet is not the smartest choice for brain health, study says

At almost any social occasion that involves older adults, memory challenges surface. As we age, our ability to keep an account of all we have learned and call it up "at will" is often compromised. Let me use a personal illustration.

We recently invited two friends for dinner. Both have a quick wit and fascinating life stories. As the evening progressed our conversation was varied and interesting. The topic turned to movies. This couple told us about a recently seen foreign film and described it as "a breathtaking Norwegian movie" that "utterly captivated" them. They retold the details of the film in such a way we were mesmerized.

But the title of the movie escaped them completely. They were fairly sure it involved the word "memories," so we made a little game of trying to precede that word with a descriptor that might prove to be the right one. "Enduring Memories," perhaps?" "Enchanted Memories?"

My husband pulled out his ever-available iPhone and attempted an online search — to no avail. The pair actually left earlier than they might have to in order to go home and look it up on their calendar. Interestingly, they found the title did not contain the word "memories" at all. It was "Everlasting Moments." Our collective attempts at recall had circled around the right name but never landed. (A great little movie by the way, but it's not Norwegian, it's Swedish.)

I think about this exchange as I page through the 2010 update on "Memory" published by Johns Hopkins Medicine and authored by Dr. Peter Rabins (

Some new findings are worth sharing. For example, I thought I recalled Vitamin D deficits were tied to increased memory difficulties and risk of dementia in later life. I remembered that correctly. (Give me a moment as I release a big grateful sigh "¦ when we recall something accurately it's very self-affirming.) Replication of these studies is needed but if you haven't had your Vitamin D level checked lately, remember to do that. And if it's low, follow what your doctor recommends, which usually involves trying to get 15 to 20 minutes a day of sunshine, taking Vitamin D supplements and eating Vitamin D fortified foods.

The Johns Hopkins Report states emphatically, "What we eat is tied to how well we remember things." I'm trying to recall what we served for dinner the night our guests had such frustrated recall. I think it was flank steak and buttery lemon custard for dessert. Uh-oh. The Johns Hopkins report says "consume meat infrequently" and stay far away from fats and sweets. In fact they go further. "When it comes to maintaining healthy brain function, eating a standard American diet is not the smartest choice."

It may not surprise you they recommend a heart-healthy Mediterranean diet with lots of fresh (rather than processed) foods and loads of plant-based options (vegetables, fruits, legumes and whole grains.) A study in the Annals of Neurology found that "participants (average age 76) who closely followed the Mediterranean diet over a four-year time period had a 40 percent lower risk of Alzheimer's Disease."

Remember this as "the power of the plate." And consider my earlier story food for thought.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human sciences at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. E-mail her at or call 776-7371, Ext. 210.

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