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You are, and feel, what you eat

Thanks to breakthroughs in medicine and nutrition in recent years, we are living longer than ever before. But this increase in life expectancy also brings an increase in the number of diseases, injuries and impairments that affect older adults. With this in mind, we at the local Visiting Angels office in Salem have created this series of articles to keep our older population and their families informed and to offer some practical advice for meeting the challenges faced by seniors and those who care for them.

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The growing field of nutritional psychiatry studies the correlation between the foods we eat and their effect on our attitude and mental health. Nutritionists have long known that certain foods can put us in a better mood and lead to increased happiness — while other foods have the opposite effect — but now many mental health experts are also coming to understand that connection.

The facts that are coming to light as a result of these studies are particularly important to older adults, who are often more prone to depression and other mental health issues, due to the physical and social limitations that often accompany the aging process. Some new research even suggests that the effects certain foods have on the brain can influence factors which contribute to Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia.

For years health experts have warned that many of the foods common to our Western diet can be linked to higher rates of depression. These foods are highly processed, are often fried, and many times are higher in salt and sugar. The grains we eat are refined, the dairy products are higher in fat, and the meats are processed.

In contrast, diets in other parts of the world, including the Mediterranean diet and those in many Asian countries, contain more fish and seafood, more fruits and vegetables and more unrefined grains. People in these cultures also eat less meat and dairy, and the foods they do eat are often fermented, which can lead to the production of good bacteria in the digestive tract.

In fact, some researchers believe that it is food’s effect on our digestive system which actually influences our mood and behavior. Many of our brain functions, including mood, sleep and appetite, are regulated by the neurotransmitter serotonin. The amino acid tryptophan is essential in the creation of serotonin, and the only way tryptophan can enter the body is through the foods we eat, including nuts, meats and cheeses.

About 95 percent of the serotonin in our bodies is produced in our digestive tract, and the production of serotonin is aided by those good bacteria living in our systems. In addition to helping our bodies absorb nutrients and protecting the linings of our intestines, these bacteria also play a role in neural connections between the gut and the brain.

In addition to their discoveries on the link between diet and mood, researchers are also starting to suspect that diet can also affect the way a person’s brain ages, which, in turn, affects that person’s critical thinking and memory in their later years. Some studies suggest that the Mediterranean diet — high in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish and unsaturated fats — can benefit brain function in older adults.

While the evidence suggests that activities such exercise and stimulating the brain through learning are of greater benefit in preventing or delaying memory loss and dementia, research has shown that diet can influence the physiological changes in the brain believed to lead to these and other conditions, like Alzheimer’s Disease. While this may simply be because a diet lower in unhealthy fats and cholesterol helps prevents other factors like diabetes, obesity and heart disease which are know to contribute to cognitive degeneration, some scientists are turning their attention to the impact diet has on those microbes that live in our digestive tract and their role in slowing cognitive decline through those pathways between the gastrointestinal system and the brain.

Scientists are continuing their research into the impact diet has on preventing cognitive decline, looking specifically at which foods should be included in the diets of seniors to promote brain health and if certain groups of people may benefit more by using diet to prevent dementia and similar conditions. Research is also ongoing to determine whether or not dietary changes made earlier in life can have a positive impact on a person’s brain functions as they age.

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Information provided by Visiting Angels, America’s choice in homecare. Visiting Angels non-medical homecare services allow people to continue enjoying the independence of their daily routines in familiar surroundings. To set up an appointment for a no-obligation in-home consultation, call 330-332-1203.

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