Keeping your brain healthy is just as important as maintaining physical fitness, especially as you age. Multiple studies show that getting enough specific vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats in a well-balanced diet plays a key role in boosting cognitive function.
Here’s a look at the best vitamins for seniors for brain health, according to scientific researchers and experts.
Vitamins B1, B2, B3, B6, B9 (folate), and B12 assist with many critical body processes. For example, the Mayo Clinic says vitamin B1 (thiamin) helps convert nutrients you ingest into energy and is needed for cells to grow, develop, and function.
Cleveland Clinic physician Irina Todorov notes that B6, B9 (folate), and B12 are linked to brain health because they help produce neurotransmitters that send messages back and forth between your brain and body. According to a 2016 study in the journal Nutrients, three key B vitamins can help break down homocysteine, which carries risks for Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Most B vitamin intake should come from things you eat instead of supplements. Per the National Institute of Health (NIH) Office of Dietary Supplements fact sheets, food sources that contain B vitamins include dark green leafy vegetables like spinach, romaine lettuce, broccoli, brussels sprouts, asparagus, beans, salmon, tuna, fortified breakfast cereals, and more.
When free radicals build up in body cells, it creates an imbalance with antioxidants, which can cause oxidative stress. A National Library of Medicine article explains that ongoing oxidative stress can damage cell membranes, lipids, proteins, DNA, and more.
During aging, the brain is especially susceptible to oxidative stress that can damage central nervous system functions. Research has linked it to neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, and Parkinson’s disease.
Additional research published in Nutrients shows that vitamin E acts as an antioxidant and helps protect cells and prevent oxidative stress. The scientific paper notes multiple studies that show positive impacts of vitamin E on cognitive performance, including improved memory functions. Vitamin E also boosts your immune system and helps prevent blood clots. Excellent sources of vitamin E include nuts like almonds, peanuts, and hazelnuts, as well as vegetable oil, spinach, broccoli, some breakfast cereals, and other fortified food.
People often think of vitamin C as a go-to natural cold remedy. It also boosts the immune system and produces wound-healing collagen. Like vitamin E, vitamin C also promotes brain health by helping reduce inflammation and oxidative stress.
A Free Radical Biological Medicine review of multiple studies involving vitamin C’s (ascorbate) effect on the brain found that ascorbate helps protect the brain from oxidative stress. Reviewer authors referenced one study in which “cognitively intact” participants who had higher levels of vitamin C in their blood had higher cognitive ability.
In a 2019 Rush University study, participants aged 58-98 who ate a higher amount of strawberries and other vitamin C-rich foods at least once a week over a 20-year study period had a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
Fruits and vegetables are excellent sources of vitamin C, including grapefruit, oranges, red and green peppers, strawberries, kiwi, broccoli, tomatoes, and cantaloupe. It’s best to get vitamin C from a well-balanced diet. It’s also available as a supplement.
Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats with multiple health benefits, including lowering risks for cardiovascular disease, lowering blood pressure, lowering triglycerides, and reducing inflammation. Your body can’t make essential omega-3 fatty acids. So, you must get them from your diet. Two fatty acids that come from fish are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Alpha-linolenic (ALA) acids come from plants.
Dr. Gad Marshall, associate medical director at the Center for Alzheimer’s Research and Treatment at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital, explained that omega-3 supplements don’t necessarily help improve brain function.
Instead, Marshall recommended eating more fish to get EPA, DHA, and ALA. Studies linked higher fish intake to a lower risk for cognitive decline.
In a study published in Neurology, “lower levels of red blood cell (RBC) DHA and EPA in late middle age were associated with markers of accelerated structural and cognitive aging.” Researchers also noted that the “majority of studies published to date” show that increased fish consumption lowers the risk of dementia and cognitive decline.
Mayo Clinic suggests eating these types of fish like salmon, sardines, tuna, Atlantic mackerel, cod, and herring will provide omega-3 fatty acids. Other food sources include walnuts, green leafy vegetables, soybeans and soybean oil, and canola oil.
Overall, experts suggest working these vitamins into a well-balanced diet can positively affect brain health as you age. Be sure to contact your doctor for medical advice before making any changes to your diet or starting any dietary supplements.