kris ulland

Your Nutrition Partner

Short-term memory loss is a troubling aspect of brain aging and it usually starts around the age of 30!

“Many people don’t start thinking about their brain health until they notice some cognitive changes and memory loss in their 60s or 70s,” says Elise Caccappolo, PhD, an associate professor of neuropsychology at Columbia University Medical Center in New York. “But there are many things you can do, starting as young as childhood, to keep your brain as healthy as possible throughout your lifetime. We know that intellectual pursuits, social interaction, and perhaps most importantly, physical activity are helpful in keeping one’s brain sharp.”

Neurotransmitters are chemical messages released by nerve cells to send signals to other cells. Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter critical for memory, attention, and reasoning. With aging and neurodegenerative disorders, acetylcholine levels can be depleted and this is the reason why we sometimes have a poor memory or have trouble paying attention.

Most age-related diseases are partially tied to oxidative stress and inflammation. Age-related deterioration of brain function is no exception. As you grow older, your brain is exposed to more harmful stress due to lifestyle and environmental factors, resulting in oxidation, which damages brain cells. Rust on the handlebars of a bike or a partially eaten apple gives you an idea of the kind of damage oxidation can cause to your brain. Food rich in antioxidants can help fend off the harmful effects of oxidation in your brain.

Lifestyle has a profound impact on your brain health. What you eat and drink, how much you exercise, how well you sleep, the way you socialize, and how you manage stress are all critically important to your brain health.

Sleep energizes you, improves your mood and your immune system, and may reduce buildup in the brain of an abnormal protein called beta-amyloid plaque. Not getting enough sleep due to conditions like insomnia or sleep apnea may result in problems with memory and thinking.

A key way to keep your brain working is shut it off for 7-9 hours a night. “Sleep is the most important thing you can do to reset the brain, allow it to heal, and to restore mental health,” says Romie Mushtaq, MD, a neurologist and integrative medicine specialist.

New research shows that during sleep, the brain clears out the  beta-amyloid toxins that can lead to Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.  Mushtaq suggests a few simple things before you go to bed.
Do a digital detox. Commit to the same bedtime each night, and turn off all electronics and screens at least 30-60 minutes before you turn the light out.
Dump your worries. Jot down any lingering concerns and a quick to-do list for tomorrow to help settle your brain. “Our thoughts are always racing, provoking anxiety,” Dr. Mushtag says. “But if you write it down with pencil and paper, it tells your brain it doesn’t have to be concerned about those things while you sleep.”
Spend a moment meditating. Not only will 5-10 minutes of mindful meditation calm your brain and make it easier to sleep, meditation has been shown to reduce anxiety, depression, fatigue, and confusion. “Meditation can benefit people with insomnia by helping them fall asleep and stay asleep. It also helps with inflammation in the brain,” she says. “Most people find not only do they sleep better, they can focus better and are not as anxious.”

People who exercise regularly have a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Exercise improves blood flow and memory; it stimulates chemical changes in the brain that enhance learning, mood and thinking. Engage in regular cardiovascular exercise that elevates your heart rate and increases blood flow to the brain and body. Several studies have found an association between physical activity and reduced risk of cognitive decline.

Mental exercise is just as critical as physical exercise in keeping your brain fit and healthy. Mental exercises may improve your brain’s functioning and promote new brain cell growth, decreasing your likelihood of developing dementia. Like your muscles, you have to use your brain or you lose it. Formal education in any stage of life will help reduce your risk of cognitive decline and dementia. Challenge and activate your mind. Build a piece of furniture. Complete a jigsaw puzzle. Do something artistic. Play games, such as bridge, that make you think strategically. Challenging your mind may have short and long-term benefits for your brain.

Brain injury can raise your risk of cognitive decline and dementia. Wear a seat belt, use a helmet when playing contact sports or riding a bike, and take steps to prevent falls.

Some studies link a history of depression with increased risk of cognitive decline, so seek medical treatment if you have symptoms of depression, anxiety or other mental health concerns. This includes managing stress.

Leading an active social life can protect you against memory loss. Spending time with others, engaging in stimulating conversation, and staying in touch and connected with family and friends are good for your brain health. Studies have shown that those with the most social interaction in their community experience the slowest rate of memory decline.

Stay on top of your cardiovascular health. You want to keep blood moving easily through your heart and blood vessels. Research indicates that high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, smoking, and diabetes all increase the risk for developing neurodegenerative diseases by impeding blood flow to the brain. When artery walls get thick with plaque or “hardened,” a condition called atherosclerosis, it’s difficult to get enough blood to the brain to nurture its cells. This can also lead to ischemic stroke, when a blood clot forms in an artery, cutting off the blood supply to a section of the brain. That can cause temporary or even permanent brain damage.

The Alzheimer’s Prevention Food Guide by two registered dietitian nutritionists is a list of more than 100 foods that contain properties beneficial to healthy brain functioning, such as being anti-inflammatory and promoting cognitive function.

“While there is no one diet or food proven to prevent Alzheimer’s disease, there is evidence that diet may decrease the risk of developing Alzheimer’s,” write Sue Stillman Linja and Seanne Safaii-Waite.

The 100-plus list includes many of the foods found in the Mediterranean diet and DASH (a diet for hypertension and coronary artery disease), which have been recommended for lowering blood pressure and promoting a healthy heart.

10 foods they say are “brain-health powerhouses.”

  1. Dark chocolate (with at least 85% cocoa) – I like chocolate from Hu Kitchen!
  2. Turmeric
  3. Kale
  4. Sweet potatoes
  5. Berries (blackberry, blueberry, cranberry, raspberry, strawberry)
  6. Garbanzo beans
  7. Walnuts
  8. Fish with omega-3 fatty acids (mackerel, lake trout, herring, wild salmon)
  9. Red wine
  10. Green tea

“While consuming a healthy diet is not a magic bullet to remove all risk of developing the disease or to reverse Alzheimer’s, it does show promise for those with no current signs or symptoms of cognitive loss,” the women write.

Currants

In the U.S., “currants” often mean Zante currants, or dried Corinth grapes, that are more or less just small raisins.

Dried black currants look a lot like Zante currants, yet are even smaller. Many people think they taste better, with a deeper, berry flavor. They are often used in baking.

Real currants are members of the Ribes family of flowering shrubs. Currants come in black, red, pink, and white varieties.
Like other berries, currants are excellent sources of fiber, vitamin C, and antioxidants, especially the flavonoid anthocyanin. While currants have long been used in traditional medicine, researchers are now finding scientific evidence for their anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antimicrobial powers.
Dried black currants are a powerhouse of nutrition, with dietary fiber as well as vitamins and minerals. Prepared from the small, berry-like fruit native to Europe, dried black currents are often used as a substitute for raisins, dates or prunes in baked goods. I use them often, reconstituting them by soaking the amount I need in water before adding to a recipe.
Currants have a high concentration of:
  • anthocyanins – dark flavonoid pigment
  • antioxidants
  • vitamin C
  • gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) – Blackcurrant seed oil contains gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), a type of omega-6 fatty acid that’s been said to help ease inflammation in the body. The high GLA and anthocyanin content of currants can help reduce joint or muscle pain and stiffness. Grape-based drinks like wine and juice are known to help decrease plaque buildup, but blackcurrant juice, as well as pomegranate juice, is far more potent.
  • potassium and GLA  can help lower your blood pressure. The GLA also helps cells in your heart resist damage and slows down platelet clumping in your blood vessels.

One cup of currants have:

  • Calories: 63
  • Fat: 0.22g
  • Sodium: 1.1mg
  • Carbohydrates: 15.5g
  • Fiber: 4.8g
  • Sugars: 8.25g
  • Protein: 1.6g
  • Vitamin C: 46mg

Currants are high in vitamin C, which supports healthy immune function. They also contain iron, which helps prevent anemia; calcium, which supports strong and healthy bones; and phosphorus, which aids in muscle contraction.

Black currents have a glycemic index of 22, which is considered low.

Adults over 19 years old need 900 micrograms of copper each day and dried blackcurrants provide 367 micrograms of copper in every cup, or about 37 percent of an adult’s required daily intake. Copper is used by the body to synthesize collagen and to promote the absorption of iron. It is also necessary for energy metabolism and to inhibit free radical compounds from damaging cellular tissue and DNA. Adequate copper intake may lower your chances of developing osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, thyroid problems and anemia.

A 1-cup serving of dried black currants has 0.34 milligrams of the mineral manganese. For a man, this amount fulfills nearly 15 percent of his daily manganese requirement. For a woman, a cup of dried black currants supplies 19 percent of her manganese RDA. Without enough high-manganese foods in your diet, you may suffer from weakness, infertility or bone problems. Manganese is crucial for the health of the nervous system and as a factor in the production of hormones, bone tissue, the proteins involved in blood coagulation and the antioxidant enzyme superoxide dismutase. Being chronically deficient in manganese can increase your risk of diabetes, osteoporosis and arthritis.

Potassium is both a mineral and an electrolyte and is required for the growth, development and maintenance of bones and to help establish the electrochemical balance that allows muscle contraction and nerve cell impulse transmission to occur properly. Dried black currants contain 642 milligrams of potassium in every cup, or 14 percent of the 4,700-milligram RDA of potassium for adults. A diet that regularly incorporates plenty of potassium-rich foods like dried currants may decrease the risk of osteoporosis, kidney disease, high blood pressure and stroke.

Currants also contain anthocyanins which act as an antioxidant and can help prevent damage from free radicals. Darker-colored (black and red) currants have more anthocyanins than white and pink varieties, but all have about the same amount of vitamin C.

A 1/2-cup serving of dried black currants contains 5 grams of dietary fiber. This amount supplies approximately 20 percent of your recommended daily requirement of fiber for healthy adult men and women following a 2,000-calorie diet. Similar to other dried fruits like raisins or figs, dried black currants are a source of both soluble and insoluble fiber. A high intake of soluble fiber may lower your risk of diabetes and high blood cholesterol, while plenty of insoluble fiber helps regulate bowel movements and may prevent digestive disorders. Fiber-rich foods like dried currants may also decrease your risk of obesity, heart disease, stroke and hypertension.

Several researchers have studied how the properties of currants may help in the treatment of glaucoma. One study found that the anthocyanin in black currant promotes an increase in ocular blood flow and may slow the progression of glaucoma progression.

The National Psoriasis Foundation recommends blackcurrant oil to help ease psoriasis symptoms. Taken orally, blackcurrant seed oil can help slow the growth and development of psoriasis patches. It also can be applied directly to dry, itchy, or stinging skin.

Some research has shown that drinking black currant juice helps make urine more alkaline, which helps to treat kidney stones.

A few cases of currant allergy have been reported in people who were also sensitive to peaches and raspberries, and to grass pollens. Currants, along with numerous other foods, plants, and supplements, can potentially interfere with the blood-thinning prescription drug Coumadin (warfarin). Talk to your doctor about this risk if you are taking this medication.

How to Buy

Currants are in season during the summer in the Northern hemisphere. Look for firm, plump berries. They grow in clusters, like grapes, but are pea-sized. Fresh currants aren’t always easy to find in the U.S. Look for them at farmers markets and specialty stores. They are sold still on the stem, like on-the-vine tomatoes, often in cardboard produce boxes like figs or berries.

Currants come in red, pink, white, and black varieties. They are also related to gooseberries. In the U.S., black currants are commonly consumed dried. As with all fruit, drying currants significantly changes the nutritional profile per serving. Water is removed and volume is reduced when currants are dried, making it easier to consume more at a time than you would when they are in their fresh state. It is also important to note that many dried fruits have added sugar. For example, per 1-cup serving, dried currants contain over 11 times more sugar than the same serving size of fresh currents (97g vs. 8.25g, respectively).

The product you find in the store is often Zante currants, which are actually dried Corinth grapes, not currants at all. These dried fruits look and taste like raisins, and have significantly more sugar than fresh currants.

How to Store

Like all berries, fresh currants have a relatively short life-span. They are best stored loosely wrapped or covered and chilled. Rinse fresh currants and lightly pat them dry on a tea towel just before using them. As with all berries, don’t wash them ahead of time. The exposure to the extra moisture will just shorten their lifespan, causing them to mold in the fridge.

For longer storage, currants can be frozen just like other berries: lay them in a single layer on a baking sheet, freeze until frozen, transfer to a silicone bag and keep frozen for up to six months.

How to Cook

You can eat currants raw, but black currants, especially, are quite tart. Adding a bit of sugar or cooking the berries into jams, jellies, or sauces can help offset the tartness.

Currants are quite common in French cooking. Fresh currants can be used like blueberries, blackberries or raspberries, in tarts and pies and other desserts, including black currant sorbet or red currant tarts.

Rice Salad with Currants, Almonds and Pistachios

David Tanis, New York Times/Andrew Scrivani for The New York Times

6 Servings

Ingredients

  • 2 cups short-grain rice, such as arborio
  • Salt and pepper
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons tahini
  • 3 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
  • ½ cup currants, soaked in hot water and drained
  • 1 cup whole roasted almonds, roughly chopped
  • ½ cup whole roasted pistachios, roughly chopped
  • 3 tablespoons snipped chives
  • 3 tablespoons chopped mint
  • 2 teaspoons chopped savory or thyme
  • ½ cup chopped parsley

Instructions

  1. Bring 8 cups water to a boil in a large pot. Add the rice and 2 tablespoons salt. Boil rice as you would pasta, stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes until done, but still al dente. Drain and spread out on a rimmed baking sheet to cool.
  2. Once cool, transfer rice to a large salad bowl. In a small bowl, stir together olive oil, tahini, lemon juice and lemon zest. Add salt and pepper to taste. Gently fold mixture into rice.
  3. Add currants, almonds, pistachios, chives, mint, savory and parsley. Toss to distribute. Taste and adjust seasoning, adding more lemon juice or salt as necessary. Serve at room temperature.

Resources

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