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A Heart-Healthy Diet That’s Good for the Brain

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A diet rich in leafy greens, whole grains and vegetables and moderate amounts of wine may help to keep memory sharp in old age, a new study reports. Red meat, butter, cheese, cakes and sweets, and fried or fast food may have the opposite effect, spurring memory decline, the same study found. The findings, from researchers at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, add to a growing body of evidence that what we eat can affect our brain health over the long haul.

Previous research from the group had shown that eating certain foods, many of which have long been promoted for heart health, may lower the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. In the latest study, the researchers found that the brain-healthy diet, which they call the MIND diet, may slow aging-related cognitive decline in healthy seniors by an average of 7.5 years.

For the study, the researchers looked at 960 elderly adults, average age 81, who were part of the Rush Memory and Aging Project, an ongoing study of seniors living in more than 40 retirement communities and senior housing in the Chicago area. All were free of Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia at the start of the study.

All the study participants completed detailed dietary questionnaires, and underwent yearly checkups and tests of memory and thinking skills. They were followed, on average, for 4.7 years.

The study participants were ranked according to how closely they adhered to the MIND diet. “The MIND diet modifies the Mediterranean and DASH diets to highlight the foods and nutrients shown through the scientific literature to be associated with dementia prevention,” explained Martha Clare Morris, the study leader and a nutritional epidemiologist at Rush.

A Mediterranean-style diet, rich in whole grains, vegetables, fish and healthy fats like olive oil, along with moderate amounts of wine, has been shown in many studies to be good for the heart, as well as the brain. The DASH diet (for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) calls for a mix of whole grains, fruits, vegetables and limited salt to keep blood pressure in check.

To get the possible brain-boosting benefits of the MIND diet, someone would need to eat at least three servings of whole grains, a salad or green leafy vegetable and at least one other vegetable, along with a glass of wine, daily. Every other day, beans might be on the diet, with chicken and berries at least twice a week, and fish at least once a week. The diet also includes daily snacks of moderate amounts of nuts.

The only fruit on the diet is berries, especially blueberries. “Blueberries are one of the more potent foods in terms of protecting the brain,” Dr. Morris says. Strawberries have also shown some benefits for brain health in earlier studies.

Foods to avoid include butter and stick margarine (less than a tablespoon a day), and people should not eat whole fat cheese, fried or fast food, and sweets and pastries more than once a week.

The researchers found that seniors who followed the MIND diet most closely scored much higher on tests of memory and thinking skills compared to those who did not eat these kinds of foods. They were, on average, the equivalent of 7.5 years younger in terms of “brain health.”

“The study findings suggest that the Mind diet substantially slows cognitive decline with age,” said Dr. Morris. “Everyone experiences decline with aging; and Alzheimer’s disease is now the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. Prevention of cognitive decline, the defining feature of dementia, is now more important than ever.”

By ALZinfo.org, The Alzheimer’s Information Site. Reviewed by William J. Netzer, Ph.D., Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation at The Rockefeller University.

Source: Martha Clare Morris, Christy C. Tangney, Yamin Wang, et al: “MIND Diet Slows Cognitive Decline With Aging.” Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association. Published online June 15, 2015.

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