Food For Thought

Last week I wrote about Artificial Intelligence, so this week I thought I’d share some thoughts about the real thing - Actual Human Intelligence - and the one thing that appears to make all the difference to how our brains develop and function, and how well we age cognitively. 


When I turned 70 I had a dinner party in a restaurant to celebrate with all my nearest and dearest family and friends. The husband of one of my closest friends had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer's. He was fine at my party and seemed relatively little changed from his normal charming self. Fast forward three years and my friend and her husband (who could no longer drive) met me at their local station for a fleeting visit. I turned to him in the back of the car to say hello and he obviously wanted to say “How was your journey?” Instead of which he managed “Did the train keep going?”


I had never been in close proximity to an Alzheimer’s sufferer before and my brief visit came as a terrible shock. Now, two years on from that visit, my friend’s husband is in full-time residential care with almost no cognitive function.


The experience brought home to me very forcibly that without a functioning brain, we cease to be ourselves. This, in turn, made me determined to keep my brain as active and engaged as possible by constantly learning new things and by doing Wordle, Quordle and Waffle every day. Then I heard an episode of the Food Programme on Radio 4* featuring Professor Michael Crawford, a leading scientist in the field of Brain Chemistry and Human Nutrition who is now in his 90s and who still works as a visiting professor at Imperial College, London. Professor Crawford has been banging the same drum for more than fifty years and yet, despite numerous studies validating his claims, he has largely been ignored, possibly because of the power, wealth and might of the modern food industry. 


Professor Crawford’s thesis is that brain development in babies and children and healthy brain functioning in adults is facilitated by a diet rich in DHAs (Docosahexaenoic Acid) which is mostly found in marine foods - shellfish and seafood - especially those rich in Omega 3 Fatty Acids like Salmon, Mackerel, Anchovies, Sardines and Herrings. Crawford lays the blame for the rise in mental health problems, including depression and all forms of dementia since the 1950s firmly at the door of modern global food production with its emphasis on processed food.


Professor Crawford started out in the 1950s by noticing that the Japanese had very little heart disease along with a low incidence of depression combined with the greatest longevity in the world. Their diet also consisted mostly of seafood and vegetables. In the West, we had mostly moved over to a ‘savannah’ type of diet which was deficient in the key nutrients that he believed were essential for healthy brain function: iodine, choline and omega-3 fatty acids. Crawford passionately believes that the result of this Western type of diet with its reliance on meat and highly processed food is directly linked to a rise in mental health problems like depression, anxiety, dementia and behavioural problems amongst children and teenagers.


What evidence does he give for this?


The Effect of Diet in Pregnancy

In the 1970s Crawford was involved in a study in Bristol of the diets of 14,000 pregnant women.  The offspring of these mothers were tested at the age of 8 for various brain-related functions including verbal reasoning, motor ability and IQ. The study found a direct correlation between the amount of DHAs (from fish and shellfish) in the mother’s diet and the performance of their offspring on these tests. The higher the level of DHAs, the better the score.


The Impact of Dietary Change on Offenders

A second study showed very clearly the effect of a diet with added vitamins, minerals and Omega 3 fatty acids on a group of boys in a young offenders institution. The researchers found that the prisoners who were given the active nutrient capsule committed on average 26% fewer disciplinary offences overall than those taking the placebo and 37% fewer violent offences. This study was replicated in the Netherlands and the results were equally impressive. However the trial did not lead to a change of policy and the negative behaviours quickly resumed once the trial was dropped.


Diet Is More Important in Treating Depression than Drugs or Social Support

The Food Programme also cited clinical trials in Australia which showed the vital importance of diet on people with moderate to severe depression. This monitored patients who were given different types of therapies. Some were offered drug treatments, some were given increased social support and some were placed on a diet which increased the consumption of plants and reduced the reliance on junk foods. The greatest impact on mood and behaviour was found amongst those who had radically changed the types of food they were consuming.


There were other examples of impressive evidence from research but these three studies alone would support a direct link between brain development both in utero and throughout our lives, brain function and general mental health. There was further proof from studies that Omega 3 fatty acids can offer protection not just to developing brains but also for ageing brains too. 


Research also shows that inflammation in the body causes havoc in many negative ways and especially in inhibiting neurogenesis, which is the development of new brain cells. People with higher levels of inflammation may also suffer from depression, with up to a third not responding to treatment. However eating foods high in omega 3 fatty acids can help to reduce inflammation which in turn impacts directly on mood and behaviour. And the great thing about oily fish is that tinned it is just as nutritious as fresh and is also relatively cheap, as are frozen vegetables.


Professor Crawford expressed extreme frustration in his interview for the Food Programme. It was born of fifty years of rigorous research and continuous efforts to get recognition for what he feels is an absolute ‘no brainer’ (sorry - bad pun). He is convinced that mental ill health is driven by lifestyle choices and deficient diets much more than genetics. He also believes that the answer lies in education, especially for young people in school who need to be taught the importance and value of proper nutrition both to their bodies and brains. 


This programme certainly touched a nerve with me, possibly because I am truly terrified of ‘losing my mind’ as I get older.  I have radically altered my diet over the past few years for a great many reasons, but my brain function was not one of them. I tended to think that my brain needed to be stimulated and challenged with new thinking and learning in order to stay ‘young’. I saw my daily word games as akin to sessions on my exercise bike. Now I realise that my brain is an organ in the same way that my heart or liver is. It needs to be fed well in order to perform well. 


And what are the chances of getting Alzheimer’s, perhaps the greatest fear of all? In surveys, most people think that some form of dementia is inevitable the older you get. In fact only one in six people over 80 have dementia and many never get it. And you may be surprised to hear that in Denmark, Sweden, the UK and US, the risk of getting dementia is a fifth lower than it was twenty years ago. Experts are not sure why this is happening but the Framlingham Heart Study which has tracked 5000 people over 60 suggests that rates of dementia have mirrored improvements in heart health, especially amongst men. Could it be that lifestyle changes like improved diet, increased exercise and stopping smoking are just as good for your brain as for your heart?


I know that, like Professor Crawford, I regularly bang this particular drum, but, also like him, I am not going to apologise! I took myself in hand six years ago, aged 69, and very radically altered my approach to food and exercise. I have no way of knowing how I would look and feel if I hadn’t done so. All I can tell you is that I feel just as energetic and enthusiastic as I did ten or twenty years ago. 


Today (Thursday) I have timed doing Wordle in 1 minute 49 seconds (ADIEU/BLOKE/STORE/STONE). I'd better keep eating those fishy foods!.

*The Food Programme is on BBC Sounds:


Tricia x

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