The Mediterranean diet received a lot of attention at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference last week after new studies revealed “the potential to prevent cognitive decline through lifestyle interventions.”
Results from four large population-based studies support a strong connection between a healthy diet and better cognition as people age. One study conducted by the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine found that, "Eating a healthy plant-based diet is associated with better cognitive function and around 30% to 35% lower risk of cognitive impairment during aging."
The studies looked at large samples of older adults following the Mediterranean and a similar MIND diet (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) over periods of six to eight years. The MIND diet combines proven elements of the Mediterranean and DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diets:
Followers of the MIND or Mediterranean diet load up on foods that specifically affect brain health:
And strictly avoid:
The studies found that even moderately following these diets can positively impact your cognitive health over time: subjects were 18% less likely to exhibit signs of cognitive impairment. But the longer and more strictly one adhered to the lifestyle, the better they functioned cognitively, lowering their risk of dementia by a third.
"A healthy heart is a healthy brain," said Dean Hartley, director of science initiatives for the Alzheimer's Association. “A heart-healthy diet also protects the blood vessels inside the brain, reducing the chances of micro-strokes or other health problems that could affect brain function,” said Dr. Marc Gordon, chief of neurology at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, N.Y. “What's good for the vessels of the heart is good for the vessels of the brain," Gordon said.
Heart disease, like cancer and hypertension, is an inflammatory disease. Foods rich in antioxidants - like those found in the Mediterranean diet - help combat inflammation and alleviate overall stress in the body.
"Foods that keep blood pressure normal, provide us with antioxidants, and maintain healthy bacteria in our gut, or microbiome, will serve to help keep chronic inflammation in check in the brain and entire body," neurologist Rudolph Tanzi told CNN.
It is also important to understand that people reap health benefits not only from their diet, but from other healthy behaviors in their lifestyle ╸such as exercise and other activities that reduce stress (yoga, meditation, a walk in the woods). "Somebody who eats a really healthy diet probably takes care of themselves in other ways as well," said Kathleen Hayden, Ph.D., associate professor leading one study at Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C..
The next step in better understanding the role of dietary patterns in brain health will be to conduct broader clinical trials. The trends we are seeing now certainly point to a positive correlation and will serve as motivation for future researchers to prove whether changing diet can improve or maintain cognition.
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