Brain health at every life stage - Food for the Brain

How much thought do you give to your brain? Probably not much when everything is going well. But the actions we take throughout life can have a big impact not only on our brain health as we age, but also how we feel now, including how we cope with stress, deal with set-backs and enjoy life to the fullest.

Despite its diminutive size, your brain steals roughly 25% of your body’s energy. Like a performance car, it is highly dependent on the fuel you feed it as well as how well you sleep, your level of physical exercise, and the extent to which you keep your mind active throughout life.

We decided to research why brain health matters regardless of age and life stage, and created a brand new resource on our website. Read below for a snapshot of some key findings. 

Please note that the life stages we have come up with are intended as signposts only and a way to organise information. We recognise the potential for overlap across life stages as well as individual diversity of experiences. 

Pregnancy

The first 1,000 days of life, including 280 days of prenatal life, are a crucial stage of baby brain growth and development. Recent scientific evidence has identified that parental health and nutrition status at the time of conception and throughout pregnancy plays an important role in brain development. 

Although rapidly growing foetal brains exhibit greater ability to adapt and change than adult brains, they are still vulnerable to injury. Optimising nutrition during pregnancy is one way of several to support foetal brain development. All nutrients are essential to neuroplasticity, but studies have highlighted the particular importance of glucose, fats, protein, iron, zinc, iodine, copper, folate and choline. Read more

Infancy

Infancy (0-3 years) is a time of rapid transition, growth and change. From the moment a child is born it should have all the brain cells that it will ever need (around 100 billion cells), although new brain cells can still be created into adulthood. Synapses, which facilitate the brain’s ability to send and receive information, are formed far quicker during these first three years of life compared to other stages of growth.

Within the first year of life, the cerebellum, involved with memory and movement, can triple in size to account for all the visual and physical experiences the infant encounters. Moreover, within the first three years of life the weight of the brain triples, as it undergoes profound growth. During these first three years of intense neurobiological growth, ketones (water-soluble molecules produced from fatty acids), are an infant’s primary fuel in the developing brain. 

At this stage of life, vitamins A, C and D, omega-3 and omega-6, iron, folic acid, B12, iodine, copper, choline and zinc are important nutrients for development. Read more 

Childhood

Childhood (4-11 years) is an important period of brain maturation, involving the shaping of cognitive function and resilience across the lifespan. Malnutrition amongst children is a worldwide issue. This encompasses two types of undernutrition: those in developing nations, where food scarcity has led to malnutrition and adverse health outcomes; and prevalence of obesity in developed nations, where abundance of high sugar, salt and fat processed foods at low prices has led to increased incidences of weight gain, reduced consumption of vegetables, fruit and other wholefoods, and therefore increased vitamin and mineral deficiency. 

Childhood is a critical period of learning and memory. Nutrients that support this include omega-3, magnesium, vitamin D, zinc. Sleep, physical exercise, and fussy eating are additional factors that can influence a child’s neurological development. Read more

Teenager

Adolescence is a time of transition, change and increasing independence. During this important period of development, a healthy, varied diet is important to support learning and growth. Additionally, due to increased autonomy, it is essential that young people are educated and empowered regarding food choices and positive lifestyle habits. 

Adolescence is also a time of increased susceptibility to mental health problems, and a lifestage where mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse disorders and psychosis may begin to develop. Moreover, schizophrenia and personality disorders may also begin to develop during adolescence. Globally, 1 in 7 10-19 year olds develop a mental health condition, and suicide is the fourth leading cause of death in 15-19 year olds. Key risk factors for the development of mental health conditions during adolescence include stress, the influence of media, lower socioeconomic status, and violence and abuse in the home. 

Supporting health and wellbeing during adolescence is vitally important. Protective nutrients and dietary strategies include eating three healthy meals a day, exercising regularly, sleeping well, supporting bone health and promoting iron, B vitamin, omega-3 and vitamin D status. Read more

Young Adult

Young adulthood (18-30 years) is a life stage full of transition and change, characterised by increasing independence and autonomy typically. The brain continues to develop until the mid to late twenties, particularly areas responsible for reasoning and decision making, as well as emotional regulation. 

Most mental health conditions emerge and are diagnosed during late adolescence. In fact, 75% of all mental illness diagnoses occur by age 24. During early adulthood, anxiety and depression remain prevalent and personality disorders may also be diagnosed. Early intervention in the form of psychological support, with nutrition as an adjunct, is crucial. 

Research has identified a close link between the gut microbiome and mood/mood disorders. Fibre and probiotics help regulate the gut microbiota, which in turn helps produce neurotransmitters such as serotonin and GABA which influence mood. Read more

Middle Age

This life stage (30-50 years) is often characterised by progressions in careers and settling down. This may be accompanied by greater stress, which can influence neurological health. Building stress resilience through diet, sleep and adequate relaxation becomes key. 

Many of the social, physical and psychological experiences of early life and young adulthood influence this life stage. For example, individuals who foster positive, meaningful relationships during their early adulthood have been observed to have better psychological outcomes during midlife

Menopause normally occurs between the ages of 45-55, but premature menopause can affect 1 in 100 women. Decades of research supports a role for oestrogen in brain health. This hormone can function to produce energy within multiple brain regions involved in cognitive function. It is widely understood that oestrogen levels significantly decline when entering menopause, having a potentially negative impact on memory and cognition. Research has revealed the supportive role of diet and lifestyle factors through this period of transition, helping to attenuate the effects of menopause. 

Midlife adults are generally less physically active and more at risk of unhealthy ageing related to sedentary lifestyle choices. Physical activity has positive effects not only on body composition but also mental health, sleep and menopause symptoms. ​​Read more

Older Adult

Older adults (50-70 years old) are at increased risk of cognitive decline compared to their younger counterparts. Risk factors include cardiovascular disease, which has been correlated with increased incidence of cognitive decline and dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. This intrinsic link between the heart and brain is further evidenced by how cardiac dysfunction has been identified as a predictor for cerebrovascular events. Coronary heart disease specifically has been associated with lower scores on cognitive function tests.

Novel nutritional and psychological approaches are constantly being explored to optimise brain health during the ageing process. Following a Mediterranean diet is supported by in-depth evidence demonstrating its benefits on cognitive health. This diet includes high intake of fats from fish and olive oil, and antioxidants from the consumption of fruit and vegetables.

Newer research has also highlighted the MIND diet, which recommends daily consumption of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and berries, and weekly consumption of beans, poultry and fish. Limited consumption of processed foods, meat, dairy and added sugars are suggested. Based on findings from a recent systematic review, researchers concluded that the MIND diet is superior to numerous other plant-rich diets for improving cognitive function and may possibly be associated with improved brain health in older adults. 

Social interaction also becomes incrementally more important for health and wellbeing with age. Elderly people report improved self esteem and health and wellbeing outcomes when experiencing belonging in friendships, compared to those who reported loneliness and isolation. Finding ways to increase social interaction, via meeting up with friends for coffee, activities or hobbies are all ways to increase social interaction. Read more

Senior

This life stage is characterised by a slower pace of life for many people. It can be a time of great fulfilment, spending time with loved ones and having more time to pursue passions. However, it can also be a time of increased illness, loneliness and memory loss, as demonstrated in dementia.

Some individuals may be more at risk of developing memory loss and cognitive impairment. The APOE4 gene variation has been one of the most studied genetic risk factors with relation to Alzheimer’s disease. Telomeres, the protective ends of chromosomes, have also been observed to be shorter in individuals with the APOE4 gene variant. Telomeres shorten across the life span and are associated with the natural ageing process, but this can be accelerated due to oxidative stress caused by chronic stress, alcohol consumption and poor diet. Importantly, only 1 in a 100 cases of Alzheimer’s is caused by genes. Much of the risk comes from diet and lifestyle factors that we can change, highlighting the importance of prioritising brain health across the lifespan. 

Maintaining physical exercise, increasing social interaction and eating well via the Mediterranean or MIND diet become important considerations at this stage of life. Read more

Final thoughts
Tracking cognitive function at all stages of life empowers you to optimise your brain health for the long-term. Take our free Cognitive Function Test here for personalised feedback on how your cognitive function is performing and ways to improve it.