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Foods That Improve Memory

Contributor Rudolph E. Tanzi, PhD
6 minute read
Grandma and granddaughter in the kitchen, chopping tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumbers, and greens.

“Food for thought” is more than just a catchy phrase. Specific foods can actually improve your memory, prevent brain disease, and lessen the effects of conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease.

“There are thousands of species or strains of bacteria that live in your gut. When they’re balanced and happy, that is good for the brain,” says Rudolph E. Tanzi, PhD, co-founder and co-director of Mass General Brigham’s McCance Center for Brain Health, which uses nutrition and other strategies to boost brain health. Dr. Tanzi is vice chair of neurology research and director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital. His research lab focuses on identifying ways to protect and improve brain health and function. And he has authored several best-selling books about the importance of healthy habits, including The Healing Self.

Foods for brain health

Many people are living with chronic “brain fog” caused by diet and other factors, Dr. Tanzi says.

“Once you get away from the processed junk foods and eat a healthy diet that’s high in fiber and antioxidants, you will suddenly feel more alert, aware, and focused, with cognitive function at a higher level.”

Specifically, Dr. Tanzi recommends these categories of foods that prevent dementia and other cognitive decline:

  • Eggs: Eggs are high in choline, which supports brain function. Dr. Tanzi recommends eating eggs at least once or twice a week.

  • Fatty fish: Fatty fish is high in omega-3 fatty acids, particularly docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), excellent for brain function. Good choices are cod, pollock, and salmon.

  • Fruits: Fruits reduce inflammation and control blood pressure — both of which boost overall health and brain health. Dr. Tanzi specifically recommends berries, oranges, avocado, black currants, and strawberries. You can also reap benefits from unsweetened fruit juices such as pomegranate juice.

  • Nuts: All nuts have benefits for the brain, but walnuts contain omega-3 and alpha-linolenic acid. If you’re watching fat intake, try lower-fat options, such as almonds rather than cashews, Tanzi suggests. Baruka nuts (baru nuts) are also a good choice because they are low in fat and high in antioxidants. If you’re controlling sodium, eat unsalted varieties, or mix unsalted with salted to reduce overall sodium.

  • Soy products: Soy products contain polyphenols and antioxidants, both beneficial for the brain. They are safe and healthy when consumed once or twice a week. Dr. Tanzi recommends edamame and tofu.

  • Vegetables: Vegetables offer lots of fiber, antioxidants, and flavonoids, all good for your brain. Dr. Tanzi calls out green leafy veggies such as kale, spinach, broccoli, bok choy, cauliflower, and arugula, along with mushrooms and peppers. Beets are another brain power vegetable, but they should be used with caution in people with kidney stones.

  • Whole grains: Carbohydrates give brain cells the energy they need. Opt for whole grains such as whole wheat bread, whole wheat pasta, brown rice, and oatmeal.

When reaching for a beverage or treat, consider:

  • Coffee and tea (including green tea)

  • Dark chocolate that’s not too sweet (about 70% cacao)

  • Olive oil

  • Red wine

  • Seeds, particularly pumpkin, sunflower, flax, and chia

Dr. Tanzi also recommends limiting potentially inflammatory foods such as red meat, chicken, and fish and high-sugar processed foods such as soda and refined carbs. Too much salt and saturated fat can cause inflammation, leading to brain fog and cognitive decline and increasing your risk for other conditions.

The program focuses on ways people can be proactive to promote and preserve brain health. We see patients before they actually have disease and focus on ways to prevent brain disease, especially neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and stroke.

Rudolph E. Tanzi, PhD
Mass General Brigham

SHIELD against memory loss

Diet is part of a set of strategies to protect brain health and enhance function. Dr. Tanzi uses the acronym SHIELD to help remember the most important ways to enhance memory.

  • S: Sleep

  • H: Handle stress

  • I: Interact with others

  • E: Exercise

  • L: Learn new things

  • D: Diet

The McCance Brain Care Score is a science-backed tool that considers dietary, physical, social, lifestyle, and other factors. Your score helps you understand your current brain health and recommends ways to improve it.

“The program focuses on ways people can be proactive to promote and preserve brain health,” Dr. Tanzi explains. “We see patients before they actually have disease and focus on ways to prevent brain disease, especially neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s diseaseParkinson’s disease, and stroke.”

Caution with nutritional supplements for brain health

The most effective way to get nutrients for brain health is through foods, rather than supplements. Although some supplements might help, they generally don’t have clinical data and evidence showing their effectiveness.

“Most of them say ‘clinically tested or proven,’ but there’s a lot of bunk out there,” Dr. Tanzi says. “The majority of brain health supplements either contain one ingredient that’s not proven to do anything, or multiple ingredients but not enough of any one of them to make a difference.”

The McCance Center is starting to research the effectiveness of supplements. In the meantime, Dr. Tanzi recommends asking your doctor.

Rudolph E. Tanzi, MD, PhD