The Anti-Alzheimerís Diet?

You know that eating a balanced diet fuels your bodyóbut did you know that making smart food choices may help keep your brain healthy, too? At least thatís the conclusion that researchers came to after looking at the connection between diet and Alzheimerís disease, a neurological condition that causes memory loss and dementia.

Who Is at Risk for Alzheimerís?

Today, approximately 5.3 million people in the United States have Alzheimerís, according to the Alzheimerís Association. And women are particularly at risk, in part because they tend to live longer than men, and the likelihood of developing this condition increases with age.

What other factors contribute to a personís chances of developing the disease? "Studies to date indicate that older age, low education, obesity, depression, low physical activity and social engagement, poor diet, and cardiovascular disease-related conditions (like hypertension or high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, and heart disease) can also increase the risk of Alzheimerís disease," says study researcher Martha Clare Morris, Sc.D., Professor of Internal Medicine and Director of the Section of Nutrition and Nutritional Epidemiology at the Division of Digestive Diseases for Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

The Diet/Brain Connection

Morris has always had a huge interest in how diet helps to maintain health, as well as the role it plays in healthy aging, and "Over the years, my colleagues and I have found so many nutritional risk factors of dementia," she says. "Diet fuels the brain with nutrients that are important for maintaining function and decreasing free radicals that are produced by high metabolic activity and environmental insults." (Free radicals are chemicals that are created by the body in response to environmental toxins like cigarette smoke. In high concentrations, free radicals in the body can damage the cells, and this can lead to serious health issues.)

A New Eating Plan for Brain Health

To see if eating a special healthful diet would help protect brain health, Morris and her colleagues developed the Mediterranean-DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) diet, which incorporates elements of two popular eating plans, the Mediterranean and the DASH diets. Both of these focus on consuming lots of fresh fruits; vegetables; nuts, beans, and seeds; low-fat and nonfat dairy; whole grains; heart-healthy fats, and moderate amounts of lean meat, fish, and poultry. The DASH diet also limits sodium.

The MIND diet takes key elements from these diets but also emphasizes berries, since "In both human and animal studies, berry consumption is associated with better memory and other cognitive abilities," Morris explains, adding, "The MIND diet highlights the foods, nutrients, and serving sizes shown to be important to brain health, based on scientific literature."

Exploring the Benefits

To assess the impact of the MIND eating plan, Morris and her colleagues observed the diets reported by 923 people ages 58 years and older who were enrolled in the Rush Memory and Aging Project. What they discovered was that participants who followed any of the three diets had a reduced risk of Alzheimerísóa more than 50% lower risk with the Mediterranean and MIND diets, and a 39% lower risk with the DASH diet. However, people who didnít follow the Mediterranean or DASH eating plans closely didnít get the same benefit. But even moderate compliance with the MIND diet still seemed to lower the likelihood of Alzheimerís by 35%.

Eat Your Way to Brain Health

Morris notes that more research still needs to be done to understand the true value of the findings. But in the meantime, she says itís never too early to start adopting the principles of the MIND diet, which include:

  • Green leafy vegetables (six or more servings a week).
  • Other vegetables (one or more servings a day).
  • Poultry (two or more servings a week).
  • Nuts and berries (two or more servings a week).
  • Fish (one or more servings a week).
  • Wine (one glass a day).

Olive oil was the primary oil used by people on the diet.

These recommendations are also based on what study participants didnít eat: "We found that insufficient dietary intakes of vitamin E [contained in almonds and seeds], folate [a form of vitamin B found in green vegetables and legumes], fish and omega-3 fatty acids [a type of fat, also found in walnuts and flax seeds], and monounsaturated fats [such as olive oil] increased cognitive decline and risk of developing Alzheimer's disease," Morris says. The researchersí findings were published in Alzheimer's & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer's Association.

Furthermore, "High intakes of saturated and trans fats increased risk." So in addition to eating the foods listed above, the MIND diet also involves cutting down on less healthy options: "Foods to limit include whole fat cheese, butter and stick margarine, red meats and meat products, fried foods, and pastries/sweets," Morris says.

Finally, while Morris stresses that scientists believe there are many potential health advantages to eating this way, "More funding into dementia prevention and nutritional risk factors is required to fully investigate this area," she says.

Martha Clare Morris, Sc.D., reviewed this article.

Sources

Morris, Martha Clare, Sc.D. Email interview, May 1, 2015.

"Latest Facts and Figures Report." Alzheimerís Association. 2015. Accessed May 8, 2015.

Morris, Martha Clare, et al. "MIND Diet Associated With Reduced Incidence of Alzheimer's Disease." Alzheimerís and Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimerís Association. Published online Feb. 11, 2015.

"New MIND Diet May Significantly Protect Against Alzheimerís Disease." Rush University Medical Center. March 16, 2015.

Devore, E.E., J.H. Kang, M.M.B. Breteler, F. Grodstein. "Dietary Intakes of Berries and Flavonoids in Relation to Cognitive Decline." Annals of Neurology 72, 1 (2012): 135-143. DOI: 10.1002/ana.23594

Malin, D.H., D.R. Lww, P. Goyarzu, Y-S Chang, L.J. Ennis, E. Beckett, B. Shukitt-Hale, J.A. Joseph. "Short-Term Blueberry-Enriched Diet Prevents and Reverses Object Recognition Memory Loss in Aging Rats." Nutrition 27 (2011): 338-342.