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Last Updated on February 9, 2021

6 Scientific Ways to Improve Your Cognitive Thinking

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6 Scientific Ways to Improve Your Cognitive Thinking

Dolly Parton may have said it best when she sang,

“The day you’re born is the day you start to die.”

Bleak? Sure, but it also gets to the heart of why we need to take care of our brains while we still can. If you want your cognitive thinking to stay sharp into your golden years, you need to take active steps now to improve and preserve those skills.

Luckily, the brain doesn’t stop growing and developing when you become an adult. Our brains are plastic, which means they can continue to change. Therefore, it’s a good idea to learn some tips and tricks on how to improve your cognitive thinking while you still can.

This article will give you 6 scientifically proven, research-backed ways to preserve and improve your cognitive thinking. The first three lay the foundation for healthy brain functioning, and the last three are strategies to improve higher-order cognitive thinking skills throughout the day.

Cognition Defined

Cognition is anything having to do with intellectual activity. Examples of cognitive skills are remembering, thinking, and reasoning. Basically, cognition is anything having to do with your conscious thought processes.

Bloom’s Taxonomy gives us a cheat sheet for a variety of cognitive thinking skills. Increasing in difficulty and complexity, Bloom’s Taxonomy includes remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and then creating. [1]

Ways to Improve Cognitive Thinking

1. Reduce Stress

The human brain doesn’t operate at full capacity when it’s stressed out. Research shows that stress exacerbates or even leads to illnesses such as depression, dementia, and post-traumatic stress disorder.[2]

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Therefore, managing stress is crucial to optimal cognitive thinking and overall brain health. Here are a few ways to help manage your stress.

Breathing Exercises

Stress reduction comes in many forms. Some of the most effective are breathing exercises, meditation, and taking walks.

Breathing exercises for stress reduction should include slow, measured deep breaths. Focus on the breath itself as you breathe in and out. This takes your mind off your stressors and delivers some much-needed oxygen to the brain, something it needs for optimal cognitive thinking.

Meditation

Meditation also helps with stress reduction. Even five minutes of meditation a day can have significant impacts on stress levels.

Meditation is about monitoring your thoughts more than forcing yourself to not think. As new thoughts pop in your head, just let them roll on by. Some people visualize their thoughts as clouds to help themselves with their meditation practice.

Take a Walk

It’s often better to walk away when you’re stressed than to try to muscle through. To reduce stress, take a break. Get some fresh air to help you clear your head and avoid being reactive. Moreover, getting out into nature is good for the soul.

2. Do Aerobic Activity

Another way to improve your cognitive thinking is to get some aerobic exercise. Moving your body and increasing your heart and breathing rates have been shown to stop the natural deterioration in the frontal, parietal, and temporal cortices, which decreases cognitive thinking.[3] Deterioration of these regions is a natural part of aging, but getting aerobic exercise can help slow the decline.

Brisk Walking

You may not think walking is vigorous enough to count as aerobic activity, but it absolutely is. Just pick up the pace and walk as fast as you’re able. Twenty minutes of brisk walking each day will go a long way toward boosting your cognitive thinking.

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Swimming

Swimming is a great choice for aerobic activity. It’s easy on the joints, and you won’t even know you’re sweating as you do laps in the pool.

Yoga

Certain types of yoga, such as Ashtanga, can give you an aerobic boost in addition to helping you with meditation and flexibility.

3. Get Plenty of Sleep

Research also points to sleep as an important part of optimal cognitive functioning. One study indicates that sleep may be an integral part of memory.

Sleep is when the brain ditches certain synaptic connections in order to strengthen others. Basically, your brain needs sleep to sift through everything that happens to you each day, remembering what’s important and forgetting the rest.

It’s recommended that adults get at least seven hours of sleep each night. Keep in mind that sleep isn’t something that you can catch up on. Consistency is crucial.

Consistent Bedtime Routine

In order to ensure you’re falling asleep at around the same time each night, a consistent bedtime routine is important. Come up with your bedtime routine and stick with it. Switching up your routine can mess up your sleep schedule.

Limit Your Screen Time

As part of your consistent bedtime routine, make sure to limit screen time at least an hour before bed. Screens release dopamine in your brain and get your adrenaline pumping, so they also get some people too amped up to easily fall asleep each night.

Also, make sure to set your phone to Do Not Disturb, so it doesn’t interrupt your sleep with beeps and buzzes. In fact, researchers now say that keeping it in a different room altogether may be even better for a good night’s rest.

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Melatonin

Melatonin can also help you fall and stay asleep. Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone in the body that spikes during nighttime sleep cycles, so supplementing with a Melatonin pill can help the body with its circadian rhythms, getting you the sleep your body needs for optimal cognitive thinking during the day.

4. Cognitive Simulations

Reducing stress, exercising, and getting plenty of sleep lay the foundation for improving cognitive thinking, but to really boost your brain, there are three more strategies you can implement during the day.

Cognitive simulations are really just brain teasers where the individual must use their existing knowledge to come up with solutions to novel problems — think crossword puzzles and Sudoku.

Cognitive simulations boost the brain’s cognitive processing abilities because the brain is plastic, meaning it’s malleable. If you don’t use the brain’s ability to take new information and solve problems, you lose it.[4]

Therefore, it’s crucial to keep your brain challenged and active. Cognitive simulations are one way to do exactly that.[5]

5. Thinking Aloud

The next strategy to improve your cognitive thinking is a technique called thinking aloud. It’s as simple as it sounds. Instead of thinking silently in your head, verbalize your thought processes.

Thinking aloud is a great training tool. It helps the teacher hear where the student’s comprehension needs improvement. It has also been shown to improve clinical outcomes in nurses.[6] Thinking aloud forces you to verbalize all parts of a problem, which helps you avoid oversights.

6. Concept Mapping

Finally, concept mapping can also improve your cognitive thinking. Concept mapping is a visual representation of someone’s thoughts — think word webs. Concept maps are basically just drawings that demonstrate all the connections and relationships between ideas.

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In one study, concept maps improved the critical thinking of grad-level nurses.[7] Similar to thinking aloud, concept mapping showed deficiencies in student thinking, but also strengthened the students’ critical thinking skills.

It’s like that saying, if you want to really learn something, teach it. By mapping what we know, we force ourselves to ruminate on all we do and don’t know about a certain topic. This strengthens our understanding and makes clear where we need to fill in the gaps in our knowledge.

Final Thoughts

Cognitive thinking isn’t the same as critical thinking. Cognitive thinking also includes remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating. Reducing stress, exercising, and getting plenty of sleep are crucial for making sure our brains are healthy, getting plenty of oxygen, and sorting through memories each night.

During the day, we can exercise our brains with cognitive simulations, thinking aloud, and concept mapping to improve our higher-order cognitive thinking.

You may have started dying since the day you were born, but a better way to look at it is that your brain can continue to grow and develop until the day you die. Just make sure you’re actively improving your cognitive thinking with these six tips.

More on Improving Thinking

Featured photo credit: Clever Visuals via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Clay Drinko

Clay Drinko is an educator and the author of PLAY YOUR WAY SANE (January 2021 Simon & Schuster)

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Published on August 9, 2021

12 Best Brain Foods To Help You Focus Like A Laser

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12 Best Brain Foods To Help You Focus Like A Laser

Do you ever feel like your brain can function better than it is currently? Have you ever had moments of laser sharp focus and wished they stayed with you forever?

We have all had those moments where we found ourselves being super productive and having lengthened periods of concentration and focused attention, and if there was a way we could make such kind of mental state a permanent state for us, we would definitely go for it.

And while we cannot make the state come back and stick with us forever in just an instant, there is a way we can slowly cultivate it in our lives in the long term.

One of these ways is by being keen on eating brain boosting foods. Some foods enhance the regions of the brain that are linked to concentration, focus, reasoning, thinking abilities, and overall brain health. By eating these foods regularly, you can also improve your brain function and slowly work to a healthy and well performing brain.

Let’s take a closer look at the 12 best brain foods to take to boost your focus and overall mental health.

1. Coffee

Coffee is among the most popular beverages that sharpen your focus and increase productivity. Millions of people across the world rely on it to help them through demanding tasks at work and assignments at school.

The reason why coffee has proven to be effective over the years is due to the two components in it that largely enhance the brain.

These components are antioxidants and caffeine.

Antioxidants help with protecting the brain from common mental health conditions such as stroke, Parkinson’s disease, cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease.[1][2]

Caffeine, on the other hand, is responsible for influencing the brain in various positive ways including blocking out a brain chemical called Adenosine that makes you want to sleep and increasing the levels of serotonin neurotransmitters which in turn boosts your mood, increase your level of alertness and concentration.[3][4][5][6]

However, it is important to note that taking coffee with moderation is the way to make the most of it. If you take more than 4 cups a day, you might be setting yourself up for the nasty side effects that come with it which are restlessness and inability to sleep.[7]

Striking a good balance between coffee and other beverages will help you avoid the chances of experiencing the side effects. You can try drinking coffee only on those days you want to tackle tedious tasks, and only when you are working on them to maximize its effects in your life.

2. Fatty Fish

When the words fatty fish are mentioned, you naturally direct your attention to salmon, pollack, cod, sardines, mackerel and tuna.

These contain omega 3 fatty acids, which are known to help with improving learning abilities and memory, not to mention helping with building nerve and brain cells.[8][9][10][11]

Improved cognitive performance brought about by omega 3 fatty acids can be attributed to the fact that they help increase flow of blood in the brain. [12]

Also, when it comes to general mental health, eating oily or fatty fish helps to delay the mental decline that comes with age, as well as depression and reduce learning problems. [13] [14]

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Omega 3 has also been associated with the lowering of the protein called Beta-amyloid in the brain that is responsible for forming destructive clamps in people who struggle with Alzheimer’s.[15]

You are encouraged to add fatty fish to your eating plan and consider having it often.

Also, if you would like to obtain omega 3 fatty acids without having to feel like you have to eat fish every time, you can use other alternatives such as walnuts, flaxseeds and avocados. They are also good sources of omega 3.

3. Maca

Maca is a plant from Peru that is grown in Central Andes and has been cultivated a little over 2000 years now. Its scientific name is Lepidium meyenii and is used as a foodstuff as well as a medicinal plant.

It is said to bring about many health benefits including boosting learning abilities and memory, improving mood, increasing energy levels and endurance, improving sexual health in men, and regulating blood pressure.[16]

When it comes to the mental health benefits, Peruvian natives in the Central Andes attribute their children’s good academic performance to regular use of maca.[17]

While there are different varieties of maca, studies have found that the black variety is the one that shows strong effects on mental health improvement, and both hydroalcoholic maca extract and boiled aqueous maca extract have the same effect on the brain.[18]

Scientific studies on maca are still in their infancy and the cause of the effects that it has shown are not yet fully established. However, it is suggested that Macamides, which are maca compounds, might be behind its potency.[19]

You can add maca to your smoothies, energy bars, oatmeal, and any baked foods to enjoy its benefits.

4. Green Tea

Green tea is another known stimulant that helps you remain alert. It contains two compounds that go a long way in influencing the brain.[20]

First, it contains caffeine which accounts for the alertness.

Although coffee contains a much higher quantity of caffeine than green tea, the latter is found suitable to use for those who prefer a well toned effect of caffeine.

Caffeine helps with regulating neurotransmitters like norepinephrine, dopamine and adenosine, as earlier mentioned, that helps with keeping you awake and in good balance in terms of moods and brain function.[21][22]

Second, it contains. L-theanine.

L-theanine is an amino acid that can cross the blood-brain barrier and into the brain which then promotes increase in GABA (Gamma aminobutyric acid) which promotes relaxation.[23][24][25]

It also increases the alpha waves in the brain which are responsible for the calm, conscious and relaxed mental state.

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When L-theanine and caffeine are combined, they both have a much powerful effect, and this explains why taking green tea for many people has been found more rewarding than coffee.

L-theanine has also been linked to other mental health benefits such as improving memory and protection from mental illnesses like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.[26][27]

Taking green tea in the morning and just before going for a physical exercise helps.

5. Green Leafy Vegetables

Greens are packed with nutrients that enhance the brain in great ways. Broccoli, Swiss chards, kales, dandelion greens, collards and spinach are among the vegetables that have high nutritional value that make them useful for brain health.

Broccoli, for instance, has antioxidants and Vitamin K, among other plant compounds that contribute to better memory, anti-inflammatory effects and brain protection benefits.[28][29][30]

Kale is heavily packed with nutrients like Vitamin A, B6, C, K, potassium, manganese, copper and calcium that promote brain development, slowing cognitive decline caused by age, depression and even various health conditions like Alzheimer’s.[31][32][33][34]

Generally, leafy vegetables contain a variety of nutrients including vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that elevate various regions of the brain that are associated with memory, alertness, processing of information and overall brain health.

Working with delicious green smoothies and recipes that use a lot of greens will largely contribute to a better functioning brain.

6. Dark Chocolate

Other than the sweet taste, dark chocolate also boosts your brain.

It contains three compounds that make this possible, which are, caffeine, antioxidants and flavonoids.

Since we have already seen that caffeine offers the stimulating effects that keep you alert and antioxidants help with keeping mental illnesses and cognitive decline at bay, let’s take a closer look at flavonoids.

Flavonoids are micronutrients that reduce neuroinflammation, protect neurons from neurotoxin-based injury and are potentially effective in enhancing learning, cognitive performance and memory.[35][36] [37]

Studies have also revealed that dark chocolate brings about a positive feeling.[38]

Dark chocolate contains cacao, which is often referred to as cocoa. Aiming to eat dark chocolate that carries more than 70% cocoa ensures that you get optimal benefits from it.

7. Nuts

Nuts such as walnuts, cashew nuts, hazelnuts, pecans, to name a few, contain several brain improving nutrients.

They come with the popular antioxidant, Vitamin E, that protects the brain cells and cell membranes from oxidative stress and damage by free radicals.[39][40][41]

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Long term consumption of nuts has contributed to a sharper memory, better academic performance and lower risks of getting mental illnesses too.[42][43]

They have also shown abilities to improve the factors that account for good heart and brain health.

All nuts have their nutritional benefits but you are encouraged to eat walnuts more as they have a much higher value due to the presence of high levels of alpha-linolenic acid, which is a type of omega 3 fatty acid.

8. Avocado

Avocado is surprisingly a berry, and it is referred to as a big berry.

Although it hasn’t been fully studied yet, it is believed to carry vitamins B5, B6, C, E and K. Also, it comes with folate and potassium.

There are also low amounts of other nutrients including copper, phosphorus, magnesium, zinc, manganese, and iron that are present in it.

Moreover, it contains a monounsaturated fatty acid called Oleic acid, which is part of what makes olive oil good to use. This fatty acid is known to have many benefits, some of which are lowering inflammation, and brain development.[44]

Adding it to your recipes or making smoothies, and regularly eating it together with your favorite fruits will help you take advantage of its nutritional value.

9. Eggs

There are 4 micronutrients in eggs that give the brain an extra edge, folate, choline, vitamin B6 and B12.

Folate helps to slow down the mental decline that comes with age.[45]

Choline is used by the body to increases the levels of a neurotransmitter known as Acetylcholine that is associated with memory, mental function and moods.[46][47][48]

The yolk of an egg is where the choline micronutrient is in high quantities, and people who desire to increase their choline levels in the body are encouraged to focus on that part.

Vitamin B6 brings down the high levels of an amino acid called Homocysteine in the blood that causes depression and other psychiatric issues.

It also plays the role of increasing the levels of neurotransmitters like GABA (Gamma-aminobutyric acid), serotonin and dopamine, which modulate emotions.

Vitamin B12 also helps with reducing the symptoms of depression as well as preventing losing neurons that in turn cause poor memory.[49]

10. Citrus Fruits

Citrus fruits are categorized into lemons (which include meyer lemons and eureka lemons), sweet oranges (which include blood orange, Valencia, cara cara and navel), limes (which include kaffir, Persian and key lime), mandarin (which include tangelo, tangor, satsuma and clementine), grapefruit (which include ruby red, white and oroblanco) and others such as yuzu, sudachi, citron and pomelos.

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They have the B vitamins as well as Vitamin C, copper, phosphorus, potassium, and magnesium. There are also lots of varieties of carotenoids, essential oils and flavonoids present in citrus fruits.

On top of that, they are also known to possess antioxidating and anti-inflammatory effects.

Vitamin C reduces inflammation, offers protection to neurons from oxidative stress, modulates neurotransmission (communication between neurons), and also influences neuronal development.[50]

Some of the minerals in citrus fruits have been found to reduce symptoms of depression in women.[51]

They have also been associated with influencing communication through the nerves and regulating neurotransmitters.[52]

The flavanoids protect the nervous system from damage through the anti-inflammatory effects they have. And this helps to keep mental health conditions like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s away.[53][54]

11. Turmeric

Turmeric is a spice we add to our foods to make it delicious that also does a bit of magic to our brains.

Curcumin is a primary active component in turmeric that easily passes the blood brain barrier.

It brings about anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects that drag along the benefits of improved memory, promoting growth of new brain cells and managing moods.[55][56]

Also, it has shown potential to handle Alzheimer’s diseases, although it has not been fully confirmed as reliable treatment.[57][58]

12. Beetroots

Beetroots which are commonly referred to as beets are also great brain enhancers.

They can help prevent mental decline that is associated with poor blood flow to the brain. They have nitrates that encourage blood vessel dilation that then allow more blood and oxygen to flow to the brain, and thus enhance its functions.[59]

More specifically, they improve flow of blood to a part of the brain known as the frontal lobe.

This is a region that is linked to higher cognitive functions including concentration and attention, problem solving, reasoning and judgment, motor function, impulse control, memory, social interaction and emotions.

Conclusion

There you go, the best brain foods that you should make your closest friends.

You should aim to have them often if you would like to see an improvement in your brain function in the coming months. Looking for recipes that use the foods mentioned above as ingredients and adding them to your recipe book is a good place to start.

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Also, mixing them up with the foods you like eating goes a long way in not only making sure that you are minding your brain health but also enjoying what you eat in the process.

Featured photo credit: Maddi Bazzocco via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] PubMed.gov: Effects of coffee/caffeine on brain health and disease: What should I tell my patients?
[2] US National Library of Medicine: Neuroprotective and Anti-inflammatory Properties of a Coffee Component in the MPTP Model of Parkinson’s Disease
[3] PubMed.gov: Effects of caffeine on mood and performance: a study of realistic consumption
[4] PubMed.gov: Caffeine and adenosine
[5] PubMed.gov: The role of adenosine in the regulation of sleep
[6] PubMed.gov: Roles of adenosine and its receptors in sleep-wake regulation
[7] US National Library of Medicine: The Safety of Ingested Caffeine: A Comprehensive Review
[8] National Center For Complimentary And Integrative Health: Omega-3 Supplements: In Depth
[9] PubMed.gov: Omega-3 Fatty Acids and their Role in Central Nervous System – A Review
[10] National Library of Medicine: A meta-analytic review of double-blind, placebo-controlled trials of antidepressant efficacy of omega-3 fatty acids
[11] PubMed.gov: Novel insights into the effect of vitamin B₁₂ and omega-3 fatty acids on brain function
[12] PubMed.gov: Quantitative Erythrocyte Omega-3 EPA Plus DHA Levels are Related to Higher Regional Cerebral Blood Flow on Brain SPECT
[13] PubMed.gov: Omega-3 fatty acids and dementia
[14] PubMed.gov: Fish consumption and cognitive decline with age in a large community study
[15] Harvard Medical School: Foods linked to better brainpower
[16] US National Library of Medicine: Acceptability, Safety, and Efficacy of Oral Administration of Extracts of Black or Red Maca (Lepidium meyenii) in Adult Human Subjects: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Study
[17] PubMed.gov: Ethnobiology and Ethnopharmacology of Lepidium meyenii (Maca), a Plant from the Peruvian Highlands
[18] PubMed.gov: Effect of three different cultivars of Lepidium meyenii (Maca) on learning and depression in ovariectomized mice
[19] US National Library of Medicine: Ethnobiology and Ethnopharmacology of Lepidium meyenii (Maca), a Plant from the Peruvian Highlands
[20] PubMed.gov: Effect of Green Tea Phytochemicals on Mood and Cognition
[21] Wiley Online Library: Adenosine, Adenosine Receptors and the Actions of Caffeine
[22] PubMed.gov: Caffeine and the central nervous system: mechanisms of action, biochemical, metabolic and psychostimulant effects
[23] PubMed.gov: The neuropharmacology of L-theanine(N-ethyl-L-glutamine): a possible neuroprotective and cognitive enhancing agent
[24] ScienceDirect: L-theanine—a unique amino acid of green tea and its relaxation effect in humans
[25] PubMed.gov: L-theanine, a natural constituent in tea, and its effect on mental state
[26] PubMed.gov: Green tea extract enhances parieto-frontal connectivity during working memory processing
[27] PubMed.gov: Neurological mechanisms of green tea polyphenols in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases
[28] PubMed.gov: Vitamin K status and cognitive function in healthy older adults
[29] Increased dietary vitamin K intake is associated with less severe subjective memory complaint among older adults
[30] US National Library of Medicine: Assessing Competence of Broccoli Consumption on Inflammatory and Antioxidant Pathways in Restraint-Induced Models: Estimation in Rat Hippocampus and Prefrontal Cortex
[31] ScienceDaily: B vitamins and the aging brain examined
[32] PubMed.gov: The Importance of Maternal Folate Status for Brain Development and Function of Offspring
[33] PubMed.gov: Treatment of depression: time to consider folic acid and vitamin B12
[34] PNAS: Preventing Alzheimer’s disease-related gray matter atrophy by B-vitamin treatment
[35] US National Library of Medicine: Flavonoids and brain health: multiple effects underpinned by common mechanisms
[36] Harvard Medical School: The thinking on flavonoids
[37] PubMed.gov: Epicatechin, a component of dark chocolate, enhances memory formation if applied during the memory consolidation period
[38] PubMed.gov: The sweet life: The effect of mindful chocolate consumption on mood
[39] PubMed.gov: Effects of vitamin E on cognitive performance during ageing and in Alzheimer’s disease
[40] PubMed.gov: The effect of adrenaline and of alpha- and beta-adrenergic blocking agents on ATP concentration and on incorporation of 32Pi into ATP in rat fat cells
[41] PubMed.gov: Vitamin E-gene interactions in aging and inflammatory age-related diseases: implications for treatment. A systematic review
[42] US National Library of Medicine: LONG-TERM INTAKE OF NUTS IN RELATION TO COGNITIVE FUNCTION IN OLDER WOMEN
[43] PubMed.gov: Cognition: the new frontier for nuts and berries
[44] US National Library of Medicine: Neuroprotective effects of oleic acid in rodent models of cerebral ischaemia
[45] US National Library of Medicine: Brain foods: the effects of nutrients on brain function
[46] PubMed.gov: Choline: an essential nutrient for public health
[47] Pubmed.govThe relation of dietary choline to cognitive performance and white-matter hyperintensity in the Framingham Offspring Cohort
[48] NCBI: Dietary Reference Intakes for Thiamin, Riboflavin, Niacin, Vitamin B6, Folate, Vitamin B12, Pantothenic Acid, Biotin, and Choline
[49] PubMed.gov: Vitamin B-12 concentration, memory performance, and hippocampal structure in patients with mild cognitive impairment
[50] PubMed.gov: Preventive and Therapeutic Potential of Vitamin C in Mental Disorders
[51] NCBI: Association between Lower Intake of Minerals and Depressive Symptoms among Elderly Japanese Women but Not Men: Findings from Shika Study
[52] Harvard Medical School: Precious metals and other important minerals for health
[53] PubMed.gov: Role of Quercetin Benefits in Neurodegeneration
[54] PubMed.gov: Neurodegenerative Diseases: Might Citrus Flavonoids Play a Protective Role?
[55] PubMed.gov: Efficacy and safety of curcumin in major depressive disorder: a randomized controlled trial
[56] PLOS ONE: Curcumin Enhances Neurogenesis and Cognition in Aged Rats: Implications for Transcriptional Interactions Related to Growth and Synaptic Plasticity
[57] US National Library of Medicine: The effect of curcumin (turmeric) on Alzheimer’s disease: An overview
[58] NCBI: The effect of curcumin (turmeric) on Alzheimer’s disease: An overview
[59] NCBI: The Potential Benefits of Red Beetroot Supplementation in Health and Disease

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