“As Mayor, I want to lead a healthy food revolution all over this city. When we eat better. We feel better. We think better. We live better.”
Though it is a privilege to be able to lead a healthy lifestyle, Mayor Adams is correct. Diet and exercise have tangible effects on our brain health, and older adults should be aware of all of the ways to engage in healthy aging.
While the origin of Alzheimer’s disease is not yet fully understood, the existence of amyloid plaque in the brain and cognitive decline are two known indicators of the disease. And though there are almost 6 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s-caused dementia in the U.S today, Alzheimer’s research remains woefully underfunded – another consequence of pervasive ageism in our society.
Doctors may not be able to provide a cure for dementia, but they can make evidence-based recommendations based on what they know about cognitive decline. As a recent New York Times article concludes, diet has been shown to have a significant impact on cognitive function. The link between diet and health has been well established in the case of other conditions such as diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular diseases, which are all similarly linked to poor cognitive health. Therefore, scientists have reason to believe that diets which improve heart and artery function can also improve brain health.
Some are lucky enough to live in areas of the world that researchers have termed “Blue Zones”, places where people statistically live the longest due to a combination of healthy diet and lifestyle factors. While we don’t all have the ability to move to Greece, Italy, Japan, Costa Rica, or California where longevity is statistically increased, we can adopt simple diet and lifestyle changes that mimic those of the individuals living in Blue Zones. Dan Buettner, who discovered the Blue Zone phenomena says that there are five pillars to every Blue Zone Diet: “whole grains, greens, tuberous (sweet potatoes or potatoes), nuts and beans. The most important being beans.” Both the Mediterranean diet and the MIND (Mediterranean-Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) diet prioritize these anti-inflammatory foods that support healthy heart and brain function.
How can we bring the Blue Zone to New York and increase longevity in older adults? Addressing food insecurity and other social determinants of health is a first priority. Social Security benefits unfortunately only cover a fraction of what most older adults need for basic living expenses, leaving many at heightened risk of experiencing hunger. Further, the Brookdale Center for Healthy Aging suggests that older adults neglect to report hunger due to emotions of fear and shame. We must not only ensure every New Yorker is fed, but that they have access to healthy and nutritious food and healthy lifestyles. In New York, older adults who are struggling to feed themselves properly can visit their local Office for the Aging or NY Connects to ask about their eligibility for programs such as Community Dining, Dietician Services, Meal Delivery Services, SNAP enrollment, or the Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP). New York is seeking to make nutrition a priority in older adult centers, of which there are 1,000 across the state. Up-to-date information about wellness and healthy eating habits is provided to those who receive meals through any of the programs listed above. We must not only provide equal access to nutrition, but educate about the importance of a healthy diet and lifestyle in preventing memory loss and disease. Consistent exercise, a supportive community, behavioral interventions, a diet that improves cardiovascular functioning and reduces inflammation, and, surprisingly, dental health are all known to reduce memory loss and increase longevity in older adults. There are services available to support healthy longevity in NY. If you know someone struggling to afford basic nutrition, we recommend this comprehensive food resource guide organized by neighborhood. It’s never too late to implement small changes, such as introducing healthier foods into your diet or leading a more active lifestyle. Your brain (and your heart) will thank you!