by Sandy Pukel

Dr. Neal Barnard is the founder of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and author of 17 books on nutrition and health. An adjunct associate professor of medicine at George Washington University, in Washington, D.C., he has led research studies in diabetes, obesity and other serious health issues. Barnard’s latest interest in brain health is the focus of his book Power Foods for the Brain.

How has your family history influenced your interest in brain health? 

All of my grandparents suffered from various kinds of dementia, as did my father and, to a lesser extent, my mother. It’s an epidemic. Alzheimer’s disease now attacks about half of Americans by their mid-80s, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, which publishes an annual Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures.

If both parents have had Alzheimer’s, is a child destined to have it, too?

There are genes, particularly as the APOE e4 allele, that increase Alzheimer’s risk. But genes are not destiny. A recent Scandinavian study is among those suggesting that people that follow healthful diets can dramatically improve their odds of retaining brain health—even if they carry this gene (International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry).

Can those with signs of mild cognitive impairment see improvement by following your recommendations?

Scientists from leading institutions including the University of Cincinnati and the University of Oxford have tested a number of different approaches, using grape juice, blueberry juice, a B-vitamin combination (B6, B12 and folate) and other nutritional supports, and have found overall that dietary changes can help. To keep it simple, I would suggest following a low-fat, plant-based diet rich in fruits and vegetables, along with a vitamin B12 supplement.

What other factors besides food help maintain good cognitive function?

Lace up your sneakers. University of Illinois researchers found that a brisk, 40-minute walk three times a week reversed brain shrinkage and improved memory. It also pays to get adequate sleep; when the clock strikes 10 p.m., turn out the light.

What’s the most vital dietary change we can make to ensure cognitive abilities in later life?

Throw out the animal products and build your menu from vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans. This simple step eliminates animal fats, cuts cholesterol and boosts antioxidant intake, all of which are likely good for the brain according to neurology studies published by the American Medical Association. And be sure take vitamin B12; this is important for anyone over 50, and essential for people on vegan diets. The adult recommended daily allowance is 2.4 micrograms, and all common supplements contain more than that.

What effect do dietary fats and metals have on the development of Alzheimer’s?

The Chicago Health and Aging Project showed that saturated fats (think chicken fat, cheese and bacon grease) and trans fats (think doughnuts) increase Alzheimer’s risk, probably because of their cholesterol-raising effect. Excess copper (in shellfish and liver) and iron (in meat and liver) are linked to Alzheimer’s, too, according to American Medical Association publications.

Aluminum is more controversial, but I recommend avoiding it. You’ll find it in some antacids, baking powder, some processed cheeses, pizzas and of course, aluminum cookware and antiperspirants. It pays to read labels and choose aluminum-free alternatives.

What are some of the best power foods for brain health?

Emphasize green leafy vegetables, almonds and seeds for vitamin E, plus sweet potatoes, a staple in Okinawa, home to an extraordinary number of healthy centenarians. Add a handful of blueberries to morning oatmeal or make them a mid-morning snack.

What can we do to increase public awareness of how life choices affect brain health?

The Physicians Committee offers free resources at

Dr. Neal Barnard will be a keynote speaker on the 13th Holistic Holiday at Sea cruise, departing Feb. 27, 2016.

For more information, call 800-496-0989 or visit