Q: I'm worried that I'll end up with memory problems, like my mom. I'm 47, and she's 79. What can I do to dodge that bullet? — Francine T., Chicago
A: We're sorry your mom has memory problems, but that doesn't mean you will. A new Mayo Clinic study shows that even if you have a genetic predisposition for late-onset Alzheimer's disease, making specific lifestyle choices can postpone symptoms for a significant number of years (nine in the study) and reduce non-Alzheimer's cognitive decline, too.
First and foremost, you want to protect your cardiovascular system so it delivers the nutrients and oxygen that your brain needs to stay healthy. That calls for smart nutrition and plenty of physical activity (which also will help you manage stress and control your blood pressure -- important steps for heart and brain health).
What you eat, or don't eat, can help your arteries stay clear of plaque. So dump the Five Food Felons — added sugar and syrup, trans and saturated fats, and any grain that isn't 100 percent whole — and eat lots of omega-3-rich fish, like salmon and sea trout, while aiming for nine daily servings of fruits and veggies. (Ask your doctor about taking 162 mg of aspirin daily; research shows that it may help protect brain function.)
Walking 10,000 steps, or the equivalent, at least five days a week also can protect or even boost brainpower. One minute of aerobic activity equals 100 steps, so a 90-minute aerobics class is really good! Combining walking with strength-building exercise does the most to encourage growth and survival of new neurons in the brain.
But physical exercise is just one workout you need to give your brain. Flexing your brain's mental muscle by taking up group activities, crafts or arts, reading or playing games can postpone or prevent cognitive problems, even if you don't start until middle age or older. So today, resolve to enjoy the great food and the fun and games that will help you stay healthy and sharp!
Q: I'm five months pregnant and just read new guidelines that say pregnant women should eat more fish. But there are all these warnings about avoiding some fish because they contain mercury! What's the solution? — Sally P., Carbondale, Illinois
A: You must be referring to the new Food and Drug Administration/Environmental Protection Agency guidelines about safely getting enough omega-3 fatty acids while you're pregnant and breastfeeding, since they're essential for fetal brain development, a newborn's vision and continued neurodevelopment. Omega-3s also help Mom by reducing the risk of pre-eclampsia, preterm labor and delivery and postpartum depression.
The guidelines recommend eating 8-12 ounces of low-mercury fish a week so you get enough omega-3s. This includes salmon, trout, light tuna, herring, blue mussels, Pacific oysters, whitefish, shrimp, pollock, tilapia, catfish and cod. (If you take in low levels of methyl mercury from fish, they're eventually processed and excreted from your body.) Fish with higher mercury content (and the ones to avoid) are the bigger fish: marlin, albacore tuna, tilefish, shark, swordfish and king mackerel.
FYI: Atlantic salmon has 2 micrograms of mercury per 4-ounce serving and delivers 1,200-2,400 milligrams of omega-3s! Albacore tuna has 54-58 mcg of mercury and 1,700 mg of omega-3s in a 4-ounce serving.
As for supplements: There's no definitive recommendation for daily intake of omega-3s for pregnant women or anyone else, but eating 12 ounces of fish a week could deliver 4-6.5 grams; that's an average of up to 900 mg a day. If you're taking omega-3 fish-oil supplements, you want to make sure they're free of toxins. They should be tested for particles per trillion by a third-party lab. We favor algal-oil DHA (fish get their omega-3s from algae), and DHA omega-3 from algae is free of mercury. We take 900 mg a day.
So, talk with your doctor about all your nutritional needs during pregnancy to make sure you're getting enough omega-3s, plus folic acid and other nutrients essential for a healthy pregnancy. And congratulations!