MIND Diet may slow cognitive decline

Posted by Michael Edwards

Blueberries, nuts, a green leafy diet and a glass of wine may slow neurodegenerative decay according to recent research writes Michael Edwards.

Healthy balanced diet reduces risk of Alzheimer's

“The study findings suggest that the MIND Diet substantially slows cognitive decline with age,” is the concise summary of extensive observation of 960 adults by Rush University, Chicago. The sample, aged between 58 and 98, showed an equivalent of being 7.5 years younger cognitively than those who did not follow the diet. There were particular improvements in episodic memory, semantic memory and perceptual speed.

The diet, its memorable acronym stands for Mediterranean-Dash Intervention for Neurodegenerative Decay, integrates elements of the Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension (DASH), was specifically designed to slow the inevitable degeneration of the brain in later life.

Martha Clare Morris PhD, a nutritional epidemiologist, who led the research is keen to stress that diet is just one of “many factors that play into who gets the disease.”  Although it is early days for both the MIND diet and research on its benefits, the report suggests that adhering strictly to the diet may reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease by as much as 53%.

The MIND diet

The MIND Diet recommends eating berries at least twice a week. They are the only fruit specifically referenced. “Blueberries are one of the most potent foods in terms of protecting the brain,” says Morris. Fortunately freezing does not reduce their anthocyanin antioxidants. 

Although MIND shares much common ground with NHS advice on healthy eating Morris’ report places greater emphasis on eating three portions of whole grain foods a day and encourages followers to snack on nuts five times per week. The guidelines include two portions of fish and one of poultry per week. A leafy diet of greens such as kale, spinach, broccoli and cabbage is at the heart of the regime alongside three portions of beans per week. A small daily glass of wine is permitted.

Consumption of some food groups is specifically discouraged. Cheese should be limited to a weekly treat with butter and margarine fat reduced to less than a tablespoon per day. No more than five portions of cake and sweets are to be enjoyed each week. Although red meat is not forbidden portions should be small and infrequent. Fried food is definitely a taboo.

Those who follow the NHS five-a-day guidelines will be broadly in line with MIND principles. Encouragingly the Rush University report shows some slowed cognitive decline even for those who loosely followed the diet.

But recent trends in British nutritional habits do not bode well. A Report on Food Expenditure and Nutritional Quality over the Great Recession published in 2013 (for The Institute of Fiscal Studies) showed that since the beginning of the recession in 2008 household budgets have cut real expenditure on food and substituted cheaper, less nutritional foods.

“This decline in the average nutritional quality of foods was primarily driven by a substitution towards processed sweet and savoury food and away from fruit and vegetables.” Pensioners, who should be investing in the MIND diet, were found to be one of the groups with squeezed incomes.  

Rise in early-onset Alzheimer's diagnosis

Just at the time when we need to be investing more in our diet, when the Alzheimer’s Society has reported on increasing numbers of diagnosis, with some early-onset cases occurring for patients in their late forties, the British public is sliding away from the very dietary principles which may protect them. Ultimately individual dementia risk assessments coupled with person-specific diets would be the ideal approach.

Nor is this just a financial issue. Hard-working Brits suffer from time-poverty too, grabbing a latte and muffin on-the-go as they rush to work, rushing a pre-prepared meal, high on salt and sugar, into the microwave when they finally arrive home.  

However, the findings of the Medical Centre at Rush University result from an observational study. Encouraging correlations do not effectively demonstrate cause or effect. Much research remains to be done on factors such as the influence of genetics, other medical conditions and the side-effects of medication on neurodegenerative disease.

Dr Clare Walton, Alzheimer's Society's Research Manager put the findings into perspective on the Alzheimer's website, 'This research reinforces what we already know about the importance of maintaining a healthy and balanced diet to keep your brain healthy ... It's important that people realise there are several steps you can take to reduce your risk of dementia, in addition to a healthy balanced diet, including being physically and mentally active and not smoking.'

Learn more about how diet may help prevent Alheimer's

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