Brain Foods

Eat Better to nurture your brain

Reduce your risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease

Dementia exacts a huge financial and emotion toll globally. In spite of vast sums spent on finding a drug-based cure, none has yet materialized. Thus, preventing dementia with healthy lifestyle choices is currently the best way to reduce the economic and social costs of dementia. Research identifies diet as a potential preventive measure.

Three dietary patterns appear promising: the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension); Mediterranean diet, and the MIND diet (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay). These diets are similar in that they emphasize what one might call “real foods” and restricts processed foods. Similarities among these diets include emphasis on vegetables, fruits, and nuts, and de-emphasis on sweets.

The Mediterranean diet also emphasizes olive oil, fish, breads and cereals, legumes, beans, seeds, and restricts red and processed meats. The DASH diet emphasizes grains, legumes, seeds, low-fat dairy, and restricts saturated and total fat, cholesterol, and sodium. The MIND diet emphasizes olive oil, fish, whole grains, berries, green leafy vegetables, beans, and poultry, while restricting cheese, butter / margarine, and fried fast foods. Researchers in the Netherlands reviewed 56 studies that evaluated these dietary patterns with respect to reducing risk of cognitive decline (a precursor of dementia) and Alzheimer’s disease. Higher adherence to any of these diets predicted lower risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. Of the three, the MIND diet showed the greatest benefit. If you Eat Better, you may reduce your risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease.

Not surprisingly, what you eat affects how well your brain works. Would three diets (DASH, Mediterranean, and MIND) reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s disease if you’re middle-aged or older? Researchers at the Rush Medical Center investigated links between diet and cognitive function. Participants included 923 Chicago metro area community members aged 58-98.

After an average follow-up of 3.8 years and compared to the lowest one-third of adherence to each of the three diets, high adherence predicted significantly reduced risks of Alzheimer’s disease. The reduced risks were 52, 41, and 40 percent for the MIND, Mediterranean, DASH and diets, respectively. The above results accounted for a host of confounding factors. These results did not depend on age, sex, education, physical activity, or cardiovascular health. Nutrition experts commonly recommend these diets as “healthy eating.” The MIND diet predicts even healthier eating, at least with respect to reducing your risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Rush Medical Center researchers reported a five-year study that investigated the relationships of green leafy vegetable consumption as well as intake of selected nutrients and phytochemicals, including vitamin K (phylloquinone), lutein, β-carotene, nitrate, folate, kaempferol, and α-tocopherol, with cognitive decline. The study included 960 participants aged 58-99 at baseline in the Memory and Aging Project. After statistically controlling for potential confounding factors (age, sex, education, participation in cognitive activities, physical activities, smoking, and seafood and alcohol consumption), consumption of green leafy vegetables predicted slower cognitive decline.

Compared to the lowest quintile of leafy green vegetable intake, those in the highest quintile of intake experienced the equivalent of being 11 years younger cognitively after 4.7 years of follow-up. Read that again! Higher intakes of each of the nutrients and phytochemicals (except for β-carotene) individually predicted slower cognitive decline. The aging of the Baby Boom generation in the US could lead to huge increases in the prevalence of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. This study suggests that the health benefits of eating lots of green leafy vegetables, such as kale, collard greens, and spinach, might extend to reduced risk of dementia later in life.

Higher adherence to a MIND diet predicts lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and slower cognitive decline in older people. A follow-up study investigated whether higher adherence of a MIND diet would predict higher global cognition even in the presence of Alzheimer’s and brain pathologies. Researchers autopsied the brains of 569 deceased participants in the Rush Memory and Aging Project for evidence of various brain pathologies. A high MIND diet adherence score predicted better global cognitive function near the date of death. Neither the statistical significance nor the magnitude of the association between MIND diet score and global cognitive changed appreciably when researchers included measures of Alzheimer’s and brain pathologies in the statistical models. This means that high cognitive function can occur in spite of brain pathologies. Thus, the MIND diet may promote cognitive resilience in older people.

Flavonoids include a variety of naturally occurring complex organic chemicals found in plants. These phytochemicals exert strong anti-oxidant effects. Oxidative stress appears to play a role in age-related cognitive decline. Thus, eating more phytochemicals may help temper age-related cognitive decline. A team of researchers in Boston examined whether higher levels of dietary phytochemicals overall and in six sub-classes predicted lower risk of subjective cognitive decline (SCD). You might think that objectively measured as opposed to SCD would be a better measure. However, SCD can occur before cognitive decline is diagnosed in a clinical setting.

Researchers used diet and SCD data from 49,493 participants (average age 76 years) in the Nurses’ Health Study and 27,842 participants (average 73 years) in the Health Professionals Follow-up Study. Higher total flavonoid intake predicted significantly lower risk of SCD. Specifically, compared to participants in the lowest quintile of flavone, flavanone, and anthocyanin intake, participants in the highest quintiles had 38, 36, and 24 percent lower risks, respectively, of developing SCD during follow-up. Enough of the science – what foods contain high amounts of flavonoids? The top foods include (in declining order) Brussels’ sprouts, strawberries, cauliflower, raw spinach, and yams / sweet potatoes. High intakes of these and two dozen other vegetables and fruits predict significant declines in risk of developing SCD. Do yourself a favor and ramp up your consumption of these top five foods. Keep your mind sharp in your later years.

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