Good Fats Bad Fats

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For years, scientists regarded fat in the diet as universally bad for your brain. But we now know that only some fats are bad for your memory, whereas others are actually beneficial. Your brain can suffer under the influence of saturated fats (found mainly in meat and dairy products) and trans fats (found mostly in processed foods with partially hydrogenated oils). But your brain can thrive on unsaturated fats, which come from nuts, most vegetable oils, and fish oils.

A report in the Archives of Neurology in 2003 revealed that large amounts of saturated fats and trans fats were associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer's disease, whereas eating large amounts of unsaturated fats decreased risk. The study included a random sample of 815 people ages sixty-five and older with normal cognitive function. After four years, people who consumed the most saturated fat or trans fats were approximately twice as likely to develop Alzheimer's disease as were people who consumed the lowest amounts of these fats. In contrast, polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats appeared to convey a protective benefit; risk of Alzheimer's disease was 70 percent lower among people who ate the most polyunsaturated fats compared with those who ate the least.

The same researchers also reported that eating fish regularly was protective for memory function. Study participants who ate fish once a week or more were 60 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease than those who didn't eat fish. Fish is high in a type of polyunsaturated fat known as omega-3 fatty acids, which we think might improve nerve function as well as heart health.

It stands to reason that saturated fat is bad for your memory and unsaturated fats are beneficial. Saturated fat contributes to heart disease, hypertension, and high cholesterol, each of which increases the risk of age-related memory loss. Unsaturated fats are known to protect against these cardiovascular disorders. And we know that what's good for your heart is also good for your brain.

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