Posted on Categories Discover Magazine
Did your mother ever say, “you should eat your greens”? Well, she was right; you should definitely eat your greens — and you should make sure she’s eating hers, too.
In recent years a growing body of evidence has shown that diet can play an important role in staving off Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. Now scientists are starting to work out the details of what such a diet looks like.
You’ve probably been hearing about the Mediterranean diet for years, based on its known benefits for heart health. But as the saying goes, “What’s good for the heart is good for the brain.”
Multiple studies have shown the Mediterranean diet to be associated with reduced dementia risk as well. This is because healthy habits (including regular exercise) that keep the arteries clear let more blood flow to both the heart and the brain, nourishing both organs.
The MIND diet is the (relatively) new kid on the block. It’s a mash-up of the Mediterranean diet and the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet. The acronym MIND stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (makes you grateful for acronyms, doesn’t it?). And the evidence is strong that it can delay the onset of dementia.
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According to David Geldmacher, a neurologist and director of the Division of Memory Disorders at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Heersink School of Medicine, the evidence is strong because of its consistency. Multiple studies, he says, have supported not only its role in slowing the progression of cognitive decline but also in improving cognitive performance in some people.
Read More: The 4 Main Types of Dementia
But the mechanisms involved in achieving those results were not known. However, a recent study has shed some light on this. Researchers examined the brains of 581 people who had participated in the Memory and Aging Project at Chicago’s Rush University.
The volunteers had agreed to donate their brains for dementia research after their deaths. Before death, they provided ongoing details about their diets. The researchers correlated the number of neurofibrillary plaques and tangles in their brains (hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease) with the foods they’d eaten in the years before they died.
The results showed that the people who adhered most closely to the Mediterranean diet had fewer plaques and tangles in their brains — in fact, the number of plaques and tangles in their brains was similar to the number found in someone 18 years younger than the people who adhered least to the diet.
There were similar results for the MIND diet. There, the number of plaques and tangles in the people who adhered most closely to the diet was similar to those found in someone 12 years younger than those who adhered least to the diet.
The fact that this study looked at the specific pathology of Alzheimer’s suggests that these dietary approaches have an independent beneficial effect on the brain beyond improving circulation, according to Geldmacher.
Read More: Is the Mediterranean Diet Healthy?
This is impressive, even inspiring. But even if completely preventing dementia is not possible now, at least there are dietary steps we can take to delay its onset. The question is: What specifically would an Alzheimer’s prevention diet look like?
Well, for one thing, it would be very green. When the researchers drilled down to specific foods, they found that people who ate the most leafy greens — seven or more servings a week — had plaque levels similar to those found in the brain of someone 19 years younger than people who ate one or fewer servings per week.
But greens aren’t the only foods that fight memory loss. Both diets recommend generous amounts of vegetables and fruits and three or more servings of fish per week. The MIND diet calls for three servings of whole grains daily, lots of berries and beans, and plenty of other veggies.
Still, greens take top honors. Why greens? According to Geldmacher, that’s likely because of the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of these foods. He adds, however, that some of it may be due to “replacement.” If you’re loading up on greens, which are full of fiber and therefore filling, you’re probably eating fewer harmful foods, such as fried foods and sweets.
There’s very little downside to this dietary approach, and the benefits could be huge. However, because of the amount of grains called for, Geldmacher points out that people with diabetes need to be careful to ensure they stay within their carbohydrate limits.
While there is no miracle food for preventing dementia, good food can often work miracles.
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