Research shows that three similar diets are proven to protect older folks from Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. They are the MIND (Mediterranean Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) diet, the original DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) and the Mediterranean diet.
NOTE: I am part Greek and prefer the Mediterranean diet. My grandmother and three of her sisters lived to be in their 90s and maintained excellent brain health. The fifth sister is 108 and still going strong. All of these amazing Greek women lived a full and happy life thanks to their traditional, well-rounded cuisine. To them, diet was not a four-letter word, and life in general is not about deprivation.
The MIND, DASH and Mediterranean diets draw from a growing body of research suggesting that certain nutrients — found in plant-based foods, whole grains, beans, nuts, vegetable oils and fish — protect brain cells from the ravages of internal inflammation and oxidation.
The MIND method — a hybrid of the DASH diet — lowers a person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s by 53 percent. It recommends two servings of vegetables and three servings of whole grains daily. It also calls for five half-cup portions of berries a week and at least one serving of fish.
Martha Clare Morris, a nutritional epidemiologist at Rush University Medical Center and an originator of the MIND diet, notes the following:
Nutrition and the Brain
It’s not yet understood precisely how nutrition affects the brains of older adults. Most studies to date have been in animals or younger adults. But it is clear that a poor diet increases the risk of developing hypertension, cardiovascular disease, obesity and diabetes — all of which affect cognitive function. In other words: A good diet that reduces the risk of chronic illness is beneficial to the brain.
What people eat influences brain cells and how they function. Several nutrients have been shown to trigger healthy biological mechanisms related to neuropathology in the brain. One is Vitamin E— a powerful antioxidant found in oils, nuts, seeds, whole grains and leafy green vegetables that slow cognitive decline and reduces the accumulation of destructive beta-amyloidal proteins in the brain.
“The brain is a site of great metabolic activity,” Morris said. “It uses an enormous amount of energy, and in doing so generates a high level of free-radical molecules, which are unstable and destructive. Vitamin E snatches up those free radicals and protects the brain from injury.”
Also helpful is Vitamin B12 — found in meat, eggs, cheese and fish — and Vitamin B9 (foliate) in green leafy vegetables, grains, nuts, and beans. Because aging affects stomach acids that facilitate the absorption of B12, everyone who gets to middle age should have a doctor check their B12 levels. A deficiency of this vitamin can lead to confusion and memory problems, while folate deficiency is associated with cognitive decline and an increased risk of dementia.
Omega-3 fatty acids in fish and nuts oils, especially DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), are highly concentrated in the brain, where they are incorporated in cell membranes and play a role in the transmission of signals between cells.
Also, maintaining healthy blood vessels in the brain is essential. Thus heart-healthy recommendations are similar in many ways to brain-health recommendations, with this exception: The brain has higher levels of Omega-3s than any other tissue in the body, making adequate levels even more essential.
Other studies point to calcium, zinc and Vitamins A, C and D as having positive impacts on the brain, although findings are sometimes inconsistent. But it is critical to avoid or limit to once a week saturated fats found in pastries, sweets, butter, red meat, fried and processed foods.
As for dairy products, there’s no health evidence one way or another, according to Morris. “If you like your yogurt, keep eating it.” Just make sure you consume low-fat dairy products as opposed to whole-fat versions.
*I will talk more about the Mediterranean and the DASH diets in future posts… Stay tuned.*