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Boost brain power and memory

Published:Wednesday | January 27, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Memory involves the ability to store, retain and retrieve information, experiences and skills. The brain is responsible for memory and there are certain chemicals in the brain that are important to memory.

Many people are interested in improving memory such as students who are constantly preparing for examinations, adults struggling with memory lapses and older persons who dread diseases that affect memory (such as Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia).

The quality of diet affects the health and function of the brain including memory. The foods I highlight here are available in Jamaica and are relatively cheap, especially in these times of recession.

1. A good breakfast is important. This should include adequate amounts of carbohydrates (carbs). Carbs appear to play a greater role than fats and proteins in improving long-term memory. Breakfast should include some complex carbs such as potatoes, yams, bananas, whole grain bread, fruits and vegetables. Avoid simple sugars such as cakes, doughnuts, biscuits and milk shakes for breakfast.

2. Antioxidants are important. The body produces chemicals called free radicals that cause the build-up of plaque in blood vessels, blocking them like a hose and decreasing blood supply to the brain. Free radicals also destroy brain cells. Antioxidants will mop up the free radicals and, therefore, improve brain function.

Fruits and vegetables are rich in antioxidants, especially those plants with bright colours such as spinach, sorrel, beet, red peppers and berries such as cranberries, blackberries, strawberries and raspberries. Jamaicans are among the greatest consumers of cranberries in the world. Interestingly, cranberries are grown here and blackberries and raspberries grow wild in the colder parts of Jamaica.

3. B vitamins. This includes vitamin B12, B6 and folic acid. These play an important role in memory function so ensure that you get adequate amounts of them. Some B vitamins such as folic acid are linked to Alzheimer's disease. Vegetarians should be reminded that B12 is mainly found in meat, poultry and fish, so they may want to consider a supplement. Although the body can store B12 for many years, a deficiency of this vitamin may cause long-term damage to the brain cells.

4. Fish oil is great. Grandma was right again - foods rich in fish oil may help improve brain function. This is so because omega fatty acids are major components of the brain's grey matter. Fish oil contains omega-3 fatty acid which is a safe form of fat. Too much saturated fat or trans-fatty acid affects the brain and memory.

5. Zinc is important. This is an important nutrient that is found in parts of the brain important for learning and memory.

6. What about supplements? Many persons have become hooked on supplements. I am often surprised at the way some people have converted their homes into pharmacies. Less is more. All that is necessary is a good supplement that supplies 100 per cent of recommended dietary requirements.

Adults over 65 should consider supplements which include vitamins B6, C, D, E and folic acid, along with minerals such as iron, zinc and selenium as these may improve brain function. Vitamins C and E reduce the risk of developing small strokes and Alzheimer's disease.

Dr Wendel Abel is a consultant psychiatrist and head, Section of Psychiatry, Dept. Of Community Health and Psychiatry, University of the West Indies, 977-1108; email: yourhealth@gleanerjm.com.