9 Foods That May Help Save Your Memory

Top foods and dietary patterns that researchers think will keep your whole body, including your brain, healthy.

Watch this video to learn about nine foods that researchers think will keep your whole body—including your brain—healthy. While no foods will completely protect you from diseases such as Alzheimer's, the following may reduce some risk factors for brain and heart illnesses.

Oil-Based Salad Dressings

"The data support eating foods that are high in vitamin E, and this includes healthy vegetable oil-based salad dressings, seeds and nuts, peanut butter, and whole grains," said Martha Clare Morris, ScD, director of the section on nutrition and nutritional epidemiology in the Department of Internal Medicine at Rush University in Chicago.

The benefit has been seen with vitamin-E rich foods but not supplements, said Dr. Morris. While evidence from studies is mixed, vitamin E, a potent antioxidant, may help protect neurons or nerve cells from brain diseases that affect memory, such as Parkinson's disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and Alzheimer's disease. In Alzheimer's disease, neurons in certain parts of the brain start to die, which jump-starts the cascade of events leading to cognitive deterioration.

Fish

Salmon, mackerel, tuna, and other fish are rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, including docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

"In the brain, DHA seems to be very important for the normal functioning of neurons," said Dr. Morris.

Another plus: Eating more fish often means eating less red meat and other forms of protein that are high in artery-clogging saturated fats.

Dark Green Leafy Vegetables

Kale, collard greens, spinach, and broccoli are good sources of vitamin E and folate, said Dr. Morris.

For example, one half-cup of cooked spinach has 13% of your daily intake of vitamin E.

Exactly how folate may protect the brain is unclear, but it may be by lowering levels of an amino acid known as homocysteine in the blood. High levels of homocysteine may contribute to damaging nerve cells in the brain, and folic acid helps break down homocysteine.

High homocysteine levels have also been linked to an increased risk for heart disease.

"There has been some very good research that diets that are high in healthy fats, low in saturated fat and trans fats, and rich in whole grains, green leafy vegetables, and nuts are good for the brain and the heart," said Maria C. Carrillo, PhD, senior director of medical and scientific relations at the Chicago-based Alzheimer's Association.

Avocado

Research by Dr. Morris and her colleagues published in Archives of Neurology suggested that foods rich in vitamin E—including avocado, which is also high in the antioxidant powerhouse vitamin C—are associated with a lower risk of developing Alzheimer's disease.

Sunflower Seeds

Seeds, including sunflower seeds, are also good sources of vitamin E.

One ounce of dry-roasted sunflower seeds contains nearly half of your recommended daily intake. Sprinkle them on top of your salad to give your brain a boost.

Peanuts and Peanut Butter

Although both are high in fat, peanuts and peanut butter are a source of healthy fats, and they are also packed with vitamin E.

Both foods may help keep the heart and brain healthy and functioning properly. Other good choices are almonds and hazelnuts.

Red Wine

Studies have shown that people who consume moderate amounts of red wine and other types of alcohol may be at reduced risk for Alzheimer's disease, but it may be that there is something else that tipplers do or don't do that affects their risk of developing Alzheimer's, said Dr. Carrillo.

"People who drink alcohol or eat healthy may be healthier in other aspects of their life, so it is difficult to disentangle whether it's the healthy diet that protects them vs. other healthy behaviors," she said.

Berries

According to a 2018 review published in the journal Current Nutrition Reports, berries that contain flavonoids, such as blueberries and grapes, may be protective against age-related cognitive decline. The paper acknowledges that more human studies are needed and that the effect has been demonstrated more clearly in animals.

Citrus and green tea were two other foods considered in the review. They also contain flavonoids, which have been shown to reduce inflammation and contribute to cognitive benefits.

Whole Grains

Fiber-rich whole grains are an integral part of the Mediterranean diet, which is also loaded with fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, olive oil, and wine.

A 2021 study published in the journal Neurology suggests that a Mediterranean diet may be "a protective factor against memory decline" in older people (average age of about 70 in the study). Earlier studies had suggested the same, though further research is needed to confirm the effect.

"We don't eat foods or nutrients in isolation, we eat in combination with other foods so there is value in dietary patterns," said Nikolaos Scarmeas, MD, an associate professor of neurology at Columbia University.

The Mediterranean diet may reduce inflammation, oxidative stress, and other vascular risk factors such as high blood pressure—all of which may have a role in increasing risk for brain and heart diseases.

Diet Plus Exercise

Regular exercise is as important as what you eat when it comes to memory-saving lifestyle changes.

A 2020 literature review published in Ageing Research Reviews found that "physical exercise might provide numerous benefits through different pathways" (though the study does note that more research in humans is needed).

Experts all stress that getting regular exercise is also an important part of the equation when it comes to staving off many diseases, including Alzheimer's.

The bottom line?

"We can't go out and say, 'Eat these things and you are protected from Alzheimer's,' but there is almost no downside to increasing your physical activity and consuming a diet rich in whole grains, vegetables, fish, healthy oils, nuts, and seeds," said Dr. Morris.

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