Although several genes have been associated with Alzheimer’s disease, a growing body of research is showing that lifestyle factors, including your diet, can significantly influence your risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
Earlier this week, The Wall Street Journal reported on the MIND diet, the latest in the arsenal for improving how your brain ages.
Developed by researchers at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, the Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) diet borrows elements from the heart healthy Mediterranean diet and the blood pressure lowering DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet.
When tested in 923 participants from the ongoing Rush Memory and Aging Project (MAP) who were age 58 to 98 years, the MIND diet lowered the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by as much as 53% in participants who strictly adhered to the diet, and about 35% in those who followed it moderately for an average of 4.5 years.
Benefitting from the MIND diet
The MIND diet is rich in natural plant-based foods and is low in animal and high saturated fat foods. While it overlaps with the Mediterranean dietary pattern, which I recommend and at least do my best to follow, it is unique in its emphasis on “brain-healthy” foods. In particular, it specifies berries rather than high fruit consumption and green leafy vegetables, among other foods associated with neuroprotection.
Here are its four main benefits:
1. It can help counter one of the greatest fears of growing older. Based on a national poll, Americans fear losing their mental capacity twice as often as declining physical ability (62% vs. 29%). The MIND diet, in addition to possibly preventing Alzheimer’s dementia, may slow the rate your mental capacities decline as you grow older. In a separate study, the Rush research group found that participants who were able to stick closely to the MIND diet had a slower rate of cognitive decline—the equivalent to 7.5 years of younger age—compared to participants who were least able to follow it.
2. You don’t have to strictly follow the MIND diet to reduce your risk of dementia. In this study, even though participants found the Mediterranean diet easier to follow (57% were able to adhere to it compared to 49% with the MIND diet), the Mediterranean diet reduced risk of Alzheimer’s only when participants followed it closely. Since closely following any pattern of eating can be difficult, an advantage of the MIND diet is that even if you do a pretty good, but not perfect, job sticking with it, you may still reduce your risk of dementia.
Here is how the MIND diet works. It contains 15 dietary components, including 10 “brain healthy foods”, and 5 unhealthy foods. By following it, you are really following a pattern of eating rather than a diet per se.
FOODS TO INCLUDE
Green leafy ≥ 6/week
Other vegetables ≥ 1/day
Nuts ≥ 5/week
Berries ≥ 2/week
Beans > 3/week
Whole grains ≥ 3/day
Fish ≥ 1/week
Poultry ≥ 2/week
Olive Oil as primary oil
FOODS TO AVOID
Red meat and products < 4/week
Butter and stick margarine < 1T/day
Pastries and sweets < 5/week
Fried or fast food < 1/week
You get a point for each do or don’t. When the participants in this MIND study were able to follow eight and a half to twelve and a half of the components, they were observed to have a 53 percent reduction in their risk of Alzheimer’s. However, participants that followed seven to eight of the fifteen components were still observed to have a 35 percent reduction in their risk of Alzheimer’s dementia
3. Being plant based, the MIND diet may benefit your heart as well as your brain. There are many studies that link a mostly plant based dietary pattern, such as Mediterranean style diet, to protecting against hypertension, obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. The benefit plant-based foods have on health is likely attributable to them being high in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids relative to pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids, rich in protective antioxidants and soluble fiber, and low in refined carbohydrates. The American Heart Association recommends a pro-vegetarian, or plant-based diet for heart health.
Plant-based diets such as the MIND diet may help brain health not only by improving circulatory and general health but may have two other distinct advantages:
4. An ounce of prevention may be worth a pound of cure. Currently, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s dementia and the drugs used to treat Alzheimer’s have limited benefit in slowing progression of the disease. Being biased as a primary care, preventive medicine doctor, I think any effort towards preventing, or at least postponing the onset of dementia, will improve your quality of life as you grow older.
The caveat is that the current studies on the MIND diet are observational rather than controlled trials—which means they can show an association with a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s but don’t prove that the MIND causes a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s. The type of large scale randomized interventional studies needed to prove a causal link between diet and brain health are notoriously difficult to carry out (think of how hard it would be to get participants to strictly adhere to a dietary plan for years) and may never become available. Many large studies show a plant based diet effectively lowers cardiovascular risk. It is not surprising that a newer group of studies on brain health are showing the same benefit.
“Following the Mediterranean-like MIND diet may help you protect against Alzheimer’s” (Click to tweet)
Putting knowledge to action
Alzheimer’s disease is increasing in epidemic numbers. As we live longer, the World Health Organization expects the number of cases of Alzheimer’s dementia worldwide to double by 2030 (65.7 million) and more than triple by 2050 (115.4 million). Your best defense may be using the power of food, as part of a larger healthy lifestyle, to protect your brain health.