The best crunchy snack isn’t a bag of chips or a package of cookies but a handful of nuts. Why nuts? They’re low in carbs and their high fiber content makes them more filling and satisfying. Contrast that with chips that cause a rapid blood sugar spike and offer little nutrition. In fact, chips contain little fiber to reduce the rise in blood sugar you get when you eat them. So, skip the chips and other crunchies and grab a handful of nuts!
Why nuts? Beyond their high protein and fiber content, nature packs nuts with nutrients, including minerals like zinc, calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, and selenium. Plus, studies suggest that diets that include nuts are linked with a lower risk of chronic health problems, particularly cardiovascular disease. However, studies also suggest that nuts are good for another important organ, your brain. Makes sense, doesn’t it? What’s good for your heart is also good for the gray matter in your brain and who doesn’t want a healthy brain?
Can Eating Nuts Lower Your Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease?
Alzheimer’s disease is a form of progressive dementia, although there are other causes of decreased cognition. People with Alzheimer’s disease develop brain changes that impact their short-term memory. In most people, the disease progresses, and the memory changes worsen over a few years, although there are people with Alzheimer’s disease who survive for as long as 20 years. Most cases of Alzheimer’s strike at an older age, although there is an early-onset form of Alzheimer’s disease that has a strong genetic component.
Certain people are predisposed genetically to develop both the early and later-onset form of Alzheimer’s disease. However, lifestyle is an important factor as well. Research suggests that leading a healthy lifestyle can delay or prevent dementia even in people at higher risk due to family history. Healthy habits like not smoking, avoiding heavy alcohol use, staying physically active, challenging your mind with new activities, staying socially engaged, and avoiding head injury.
As you might expect, diet is a factor in brain health. Although there’s no one food that can protect your brain against the ravages of this disease, some research suggests that nuts may play a protective role in brain health. In fact, a study carried out by researchers at the University of South Australia found that nibbling a generous handful of nuts daily was linked with improvements in mental capacity. In fact, the study showed that older men and women who snacked on nuts boosted their cognitive function by 60%.
Why might this be? Some studies link nut consumption with a reduction in markers of inflammation in the bloodstream. As with other diseases, inflammation plays a role in brain diseases like Alzheimer’s. However, one nut stands out for its brain health potential. It’s the walnut.
Walnuts, Brain Health, and Dementia
It’s no coincidence that walnuts are shaped like a brain! A study in mice found that rodents who munched on a diet rich in walnuts experienced an upgrade in memory and motor function. How much did they eat? The equivalent of about a quarter cup of walnuts daily. Also of interest, the mice that chowed down on walnuts appeared less anxious too.
Although mice aren’t humans, scientists believe that walnuts could have a similar impact on the human brain. In fact, some research suggests that components in walnuts can protect against the build-up of beta-amyloid, the misfolded proteins that accumulate in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers discovered that anti-inflammatory compounds in walnuts called flavonoids turn the beta-amyloid into a form that dissolves in water and this helps the brain get rid of these damaged proteins.
Walnuts and Omega-3s
All nuts are rich in nutrients, but walnuts contain one of the highest quantities of omega-3s, a type of fat that fights inflammation. Omega-3s are highly concentrated in the cell membrane of brain cells where they help keep cell membranes fluid. Walnuts contain a form of omega-3 called alpha-linolenic acid, a type of short-chain omega-3s. The other type of omega-3 is the long-chain variety, abundant in fatty fish. Your body can convert only a portion of the short-chain omega-3s, like alpha-linolenic acid, that you consume to the long-chain form. But when you combine the anti-inflammatory effects of nuts with the alpha-linolenic acid, you may have a powerful combination for brain health.
In addition, studies show that eating nuts, like walnuts, may lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. Remember, what’s healthy for the heart is also good for the health of your brain. According to Harvard Health, eat nuts a few times per week is linked with a 30 to 50% reduction in the risk of cardiovascular disease, heart attack, and sudden death because of a heart irregularity. Along with their anti-inflammatory benefits, research shows eating nuts lowers LDL-cholesterol and improves how blood vessels function. These improvements in blood vessel function may reduce the risk of dangerous blood clots that could lodge in an artery leading to the brain, leading to a stroke. Needless to say, strokes impair brain health.
The Bottom Line
Eating nuts won’t singlehandedly prevent Alzheimer’s and we need more research to confirm these findings. However, unless you have a nut allergy, you can’t go wrong munching on a serving of nuts daily. Rethink your current snacking strategy to include nuts. When you replace processed carbs with crunchy nuts, you’re doing your brain and your body a favor!
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- The Journal of Nutrition, Health, & Aging, Feb. 2019, Vol. 23, Issue 2, pp. 211-216.
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Nuts for the Heart”
- Curr Alzheimer Res. 2004 Aug;1(3):183-8.
- Harvard Health Publishing. “Do omega-3s protect your thinking skills?”
- com. “Nut intake and stroke risk: A dose-response meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies”
- Alzheimer’s Association. “Causes and Risk Factors”