Save Your Memory: These Are Best And Worst Foods For Dementia And Alzheimer’s

Doctors used to believe that dementia was all genetics. But nowadays, we know that many factors contribute to dementia, including diet. By avoiding certain cooking oils and eating more dairy, your risk of Alzheimer’s might shrink. Here are the foods and drinks that you should–and should not–eat to lower your risk of dementia.

White Flour Increases The Risk Of Alzheimer’s

An MRI shows a brain with Alzheimer's.
BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

White bread, pasta, flour, and rice can worsen brain health. Because these processed grains lack fiber and nutrients, they convert to sugar in the body. According to a 2017 study in Clinical Nutrition, refined grains increase inflammation, even around the brain.

Because of this, researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, do not recommend refined grains. Their ideal anti-Alzheimer’s diet prohibits white bread, refined flour, and sweet pastries. Although you can eat these once in a while, do not make them a staple of your food plan.

Processed Meats May Raise Dementia Risk, Even In Small Amounts

A store employee puts a variety of processed meats into a grocery cart.
Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Processed meats are not healthy, and many people underestimate how damaging they can be. In March 2021, researchers from the University of Leeds reported that a small amount of these meats can harm the bran. Only 25 grams per day–which is equal to a thin slice of bacon–increases the risk of dementia by 44%.

Processed meats increase the amount of APOE ε4 alleles, a risk factor gene that makes people more likely to get chronic diseases. The lead researcher of the study, Huifeng Zhang, added that dementia risk rises with age. Try to eat less processed meat over time.

Milk Helps Heals The Brain

A woman drinks from a glass of milk with a straw.
The Humble Co./Unsplash
The Humble Co./Unsplash

For a brain-healthy diet, drink more dairy milk. Several studies have linked milk to a lower risk of dementia. In 2016, a systematic review in Nutrients confirmed this. After analyzing 39 studies, researchers concluded that milk improves cognitive function and sustains memory.

In particular, milk seems to combat Alzheimer’s disease, according to the American Geriatrics Society. Milk produces an antioxidant called glutathione. When this antioxidant flows through the body, it soothes oxidative stress in the brain. This keeps the brain healthy with sharper memory and quicker learning function.

Popcorn’s Butter Flavoring Harms The Brain

Containers of buttered popcorn are ready to buy in a movie theater.
Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images

What do microwavable and movie popcorn have in common? Buttered flavoring. In 2012, researchers from the University of Minnesota found that this flavoring can harm the brain. Its flavorant, diacetyl, increases the number of amyloid plaques in the brain. More amyloid plaques lead to a higher risk of Alzheimer’s.

In lab studies, diacetyl inhibited activity in the brain. It can even pass through the blood-brain barrier to degrade a person’s memory. As a substitute, you can make plain popcorn and add some butter yourself, or a flavorful spice blend.

Canola Oil Might Worsen Your Memory

A chef pours canola oil into a pan on the stove.
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Which cooking oils do you use? If one of them is canola oil, then swap it out. In 2017, the Temple University Health System analyzed this vegetable oil. According to the animal study, consuming canola oil might worsen memory, damage learning ability, and also contribute to weight gain.

“There is a chance that the consumption of canola oil could also affect the onset [of Alzheimer’s],” explained senior investigator Domenico Praticò. The oil harms neurons, the cells in the brain, and this might worsen over time. Swap out canola oil with olive, coconut, or avocado oil.

Coffee, Even Decaffeinated, Can Stave Off Dementia

Five older adults sit at a cafe table and drink coffee together.
Yorgos Karahalis/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Yorgos Karahalis/Bloomberg via Getty Images

According to the Alzheimer’s Society, most research on coffee is as an anti-dementia drink. In 2012, a study from the University of South Florida concluded that coffee can reduce Alzheimer’s risk. In mid-life, three to five cups of coffee per day lowered late-life dementia risk by 65%.

This effect might not be from the caffeine. Research from the Krembil Brain Institute found a lower risk of dementia from both caffeinated coffee and decaffeinated coffee. Perhaps coffee’s antioxidants enhance brain health instead of the caffeine.

Apples Create New Neurons

Fuji apples are seen close-up.
Adam Bouse/Unsplash
Adam Bouse/Unsplash

An apple a day might not stave off the doctor, but it can prevent Alzheimer’s. In 2020, researchers discovered that antioxidants in apples can lower the risk of dementia. These phytonutrients or flavonoids and boost brain function, explains study author Dr. Gerd Kempermann.

“High concentrations of phytonutrients from apples stimulate the generation of new neurons – a process called neurogenesis,” Kempermann told Study Finds. In short, apples help the brain produce more neurons. Because neurons tend to decrease over time, this is vital to keeping your brain sharp as you get older.

A High-Salt Diet Leads To Cognitive Decline

Multiple salt shakers are next to each other, and one is tipped over.

Avoiding excess salt can greatly lower your risk of dementia. In 2019, Weill Cornell Medicine conducted a study on salt consumption. Researchers found that salt lowers the amount of nitric oxide in the brain, which can lead to cognitive damage. It also lowered blood flow by 25%.

High-salt diets also create a protein called tau. Although some tau in the brain is normal, too much is a sign of Alzheimer’s. Dr. Giuseppe Faraco, the study’s lead author, explains that tau buildup increases the risk of dementia. For the sake of your brain, cut down on salt.

Cheese Might Prevent Cognitive Decline

Blocks of cheddar cheese sit on a purple plate.
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Several studies have linked cheese to cognitive improvement. In 2020, a study in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease examined over 2,000 participants. Those who ate cheese every day had a lower risk of the disease. An earlier study in 2018 concluded that dairy products, especially fermented ones like cheese, enhance memory and mental function.

Scientists are still not sure how cheese protects against Alzheimer’s. Some theorize that cheese has protective compounds and acids that lower brain inflammation. Either way, the more cheese you eat, the sharper you’ll be.

Lamb Is More Brain-Healthy Than Other Red Meats

Lamb chops sit on plates at a restaurant.
Tom Williams/Roll Call/Getty Images
Tom Williams/Roll Call/Getty Images

Although most nutritionists advise people to eat less red meat, it still has health benefits. In particular, lamb is healthy for the brain. In 2020, scientists examined the diets of participants between ages 46 and 77. When these participants ate lamb, they had a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Auriel Willette, the principal investigator for the study, claims that a weekly serving of lamb can improve memory and cognitive abilities. “In my opinion, eating meat is only beneficial if you remove most of the fat,” she told TODAY.

Margarine Is Not Better For Your Brain Than Butter

Tubs of margarine are stacked on top of each other in a supermarket.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Trans fats are the most harmful type of fat for the heart, but they can also damage the brain. In 2019, research in the journal Neurology concluded that trans fats increase the risk of Alzheimer’s. One of the largest contributors was margarine, which contains 2.1 grams per tablespoon.

When participants had trans fats in their blood, they were between 52% and 75% more likely to develop dementia. Margarine has a high amount of trans fats because it is made with hydrogenated oils. Saturated fats in dairy butter are not nearly as harmful.

Fried Foods Contribute To Alzheimer’s

A mozzarella sandwich gets fried in oil.
DeAgostini/Getty Images
DeAgostini/Getty Images

Many people know that fried foods are healthy, but few understand that they harm the brain. In 2014, an animal study demonstrated what fried foods do to the brain. When food is cooked at high temperatures, it creates advanced glycation end products (or AGEs). These accelerate the body’s aging process.

When AGEs affect the brain, it worsens memory and cognitive function. In short, fried foods can age your brain, putting you at a higher risk of dementia. An occasional treat is okay, but try not to eat fried food often.

Soda, Even The Diet Type, Is The Worst Drink For Dementia

Coca Cola and Diet Coke cans are stacked on top of each other.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

If you want to avoid dementia, cut out soda. In 2018, scientists discovered that people who drink soda every day have a higher risk of Alzheimer’s. This is due to soda’s high sugar content; consuming 20 to 30 grams of added sugars per day worsens brain health. This is less than one cup of soda.

Even diet soda can be dangerous. In 2017, research from the American Heart Association determined that diet drinks can heighten the risk of stroke and dementia. Only drink soda once in a while as a treat.

Olive Oil Might Prevent Dementia

A woman holds a bottle of olive oil behind stacks of olive oil containers.
LOIC VENANCE/AFP via Getty Images
LOIC VENANCE/AFP via Getty Images

If you want a brain-healthy cooking oil, choose olive oil. Several studies have linked olive to a sharper memory and age-reversing. During a 2017 animal study, olive oil reduced the risk of Alzheimer’s in mice.

According to Dr. Domenico Praticò, a professor in the Departments of Pharmacology and Microbiology at Temple University, olive oil improves autophagy. This is the brain’s ability to eliminate toxins. The polyphenols in olive oil act as antioxidants that heal and protect the brain from damage and age-related illnesses. It is also nutritious and healthy!

Orange Juice Can Cut Your Chances Of Dementia

Glasses of orange juice are arranged with orange slices.
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If you’re a fan of orange juice, your brain will thank you. In 2018, a study in the journal Neurology found promising benefits of this juice. When participants drank orange juice into their 70s, their risk of getting dementia lowered by 47%.

The nutrients in orange juice, as in other fruits and vegetables, improve brain health and keep your memory sharp. Because orange juice has a high amount of sugar, you should only drink a little bit, said lead author Changzheng Yuan. Aim for six ounces (one small glass) daily.

Berries Have Dementia-Fighting Antioxidants

A few blueberries are seen on containers of raspberries.
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Karol Serewis/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Berries–any kind of berries–will lower your risk of dementia. In May 2020, a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that people who eat berries were less likely to develop Alzheimer’s. Specifically, the researchers analyzed the diets of people aged 50 years and older.

Berries contain flavonoids, which are antioxidants that soothe inflammation in the brain. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, these flavonoids directly impact the hippocampus, the part of the brain in charge of memory and learning. Blueberries and strawberries have the most antioxidants, but any berry will help.

Dark Chocolate Protects The Brain

A woman bites squares of dark chocolate.
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Bandeep Singh/The The India Today Group via Getty Images

Can chocolate reduce the risk of dementia? Yes, but it’s not regular chocolate; it is the root ingredient, cocoa. In 2013, research in the Journal of Cellular Biochemistry found that cocoa powder supplies anti-inflammatory antioxidants. It also activates “neuroprotection,” prompting the body to protect the brain.

In 2021, scientists from Columbia University and New York University found that flavanols in cocoa can boost cognitive function, especially in old age. If you want more cocoa, skip white and milk chocolate. Eat dark chocolate with at least a 70% cocoa content.

Salmon Slows Down Cognitive Aging

A woman sorts through packages of raw salmon.
David McNew/Getty Images
David McNew/Getty Images

Eating fish, especially fatty fish like salmon, helps support brain health. In 2016, researchers examined participants who ate fish over nine years. Although fish-eaters had more mercury in their brains, this did not seem to have any effect. Instead, the high omega-3 fatty acids lowered their risk of dementia.

According to the Alzheimer’s Society, there is some evidence omega-3 fatty acids by themselves will not help the brain. Fish oil, specifically, reverses cognitive aging. If you eat more salmon, you will be less likely to show signs of Alzheimer’s disease.

Kale May Protect Your Memory

Kale sticks out of a green smoothie.

Kale is a leafy green that is imperative for memory. In 2017, scientists finished their research on a variety of leafy greens, including kale. After five years of eating kale regularly, participants had cognitive abilities equal to being 11 years younger.

Researchers believe that flavonoids in kale reduce brain aging. Even when participants were 81 years old, their cognition vastly improved after eating leafy greens regularly. “While we don’t know whether flavonols could have any particular effect on dementia risk, a balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables can help to support a healthy brain,” said James Connell, a research manager at Alzheimer’s Research UK.

Drinking Can Help, Depending On How Much

Multiple wine glasses are placed on a table upside-down.

Although some people tout wine as a brain-booster, it isn’t that simple. In 2004, a study in Biological Research found that wine can reduce the risk of dementia. However, only light to moderate drinking produces this result.

After researchers examined multiple studies, they concluded that heavy drinking increases your chances of dementia. Moderate drinking is four cups for men and three for women, although you will do best limiting yourself to two cups. Why does wine help? It’s because of resveratrol, a fungicide that develops in wine, especially red wine.