New reaserch indicates that eating right may help protect your brain health in old age.
In particular, the Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) diet lowered people’s risk of dementia, according to new studies.
What is the MIND Diet
The MIND diet is a hybrid of the Mediterranean diet and the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet. Both were originally designed to help improve heart health.
Seniors who carefully followed the MIND diet had a 35 percent lower risk of declining brain function as they aged. Even people who half-heartedly adhered to a MIND diet reduced their risk of brain decline between 18 to 24 percent.
“We’ve always said that a healthy heart is a healthy brain,” said Dean Hartley, director of science initiatives for the Alzheimer’s Association. “Your brain uses 20 percent of your cardiac output to get oxygen and glucose. If you don’t have a good pump, that saps the brain of a lot of things needed to sustain its normal function.”
According to Dr. Marc Gordon, chief neurologist at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, N.Y., a heart-healthy diet also protects the blood vessels inside the brain. THis reduces the chances of micro-strokes or other health problems that could affect brain function, said Gordon.
“What’s good for the vessels of the heart is good for the vessels of the brain,” Gordon said.
How It Works
The DASH diet is intended to reduce blood pressure by promoting consumption of foods that are low in saturated fat, total fat and cholesterol. DASH dieters eat lots of fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, whole grains, poultry, fish and nuts, while limiting their intake of red meats, sugar and salt.
The Mediterranean diet shares many of the same goals and diet guidelines, with some specific substitutions. For example, butter is replaced by healthy fats like olive oil, and to use herbs rather than salt to flavor foods.
The first MIND diet study involved almost 6,000 seniors participating in the Health and Retirement Study, sponsored by the U.S. National Institute on Aging.
Seniors who held firm to the MIND guidelines were about 35 percent less likely to perform poorly on tests of brain function, said research lead Claire McEvoy, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, San Francisco. Those who were moderately adherent were 18 percent less likely to exhibit signs of brain decline.
“Eating a healthy diet could be an important way to preserve cognitive function during aging,” McEvoy said.
The second study of the MIND diet’s effectiveness involved more than 7,000 women participating in the U.S.-based Women’s Health Initiative Memory Study for an average of 10 years.
Women who closely followed the MIND guidelines were 34 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. This is compared to women following no guidelines at all, said lead researcher Kathleen Hayden, an associate professor of social sciences and health policy at Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Hayden said people likely reap health benefits from the diet, but also from other healthy behaviors in their lifestyle.
“Somebody who eats a really healthy diet probably takes care of themselves in other ways as well,” Hayden said.
When to Change Your Diet
Experts disagreed on whether you need to eat healthy starting at an early age to protect your long-term brain health.
Gordon noted that the MIND diet studies focused on people age 60 or older. So, making healthy changes, even late-in-life, changes can help a person’s brain.
“Sooner is better than later. But, it’s never too late o change your diet,” Gordon said.
But Hayden said people shouldn’t dally if they want to eat in a way that protects them from dementia.
“We don’t know how long you need to be eating a healthy diet to reap benefits for your brain,” Hayden said. “But, I suspect it’s a long-term thing.”
For more information on eating for brain health, visit the Alzheimer’s Association.