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Can you eat your way to brain health?

A heart-healthy lifestyle is strongly associated with better memory and lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

The health press is full of claims that “superfoods”—like fresh berries and leafy greens—can keep your memory sharp and hold the threat of Alzheimer’s disease at bay. But for now, the evidence is preliminary at best. Your safest bet is to lead an overall heart-healthy lifestyle—including eating a plant-based diet and getting regular exercise—rather than drawing up a shopping list of alleged brain-boosting superfoods.

“What helps is a healthy diet style, more so than any particular food,” says Dr. Gad Marshall, an assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School. “That’s my answer when my patients ask me about this.”

MIND your brain

There’s good reason to believe that heart-healthy diets also benefit the brain. A clinical trial published in May in JAMA Internal Medicine concluded that people who ate a Mediterranean diet experienced slightly less mental decline in older age. Many previous studies, observing large numbers of people over many years, have also found links between heart and brain health.

But there is also a great hunger for diets and foods that specifically target brain health, as shown by the recent media hoopla over the Mediterranean–DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) diet.

To create the MIND diet, researchers at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago identified food groups and nutrients in two popular eating plans that previous studies have tied strongly to lower risk of mental decline or dementia: the Mediterranean diet and the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet. Hypothetically, a diet that supports or protects the brain could reduce loss of memory and other mental skills with aging or even help to prevent Alzheimer’s disease.

The Rush team analyzed the diets of more than 900 older men and women who were participating in a long-term study of aging in Chicago. In a study published in March in Alzheimer’s and Dementia, the researchers reported that people who stuck closely to a MIND diet were 53% less likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s over the 4.5-year study period, compared with people who adhered least to the diet.

Elders who ate a mix of foods that matched the MIND diet even moderately were still 35% less likely to be diagnosed with a new case of Alzheimer’s disease. Meanwhile, only those who adhered very closely to the Mediterranean or DASH diet seemed to enjoy a comparable reduced risk. It’s not surprising this grabbed a few headlines.

What’s the evidence?

That sounds exciting, but there is a catch: the Rush study merely observed that people who ate a MIND-style diet were less likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, so we can’t be sure that the diet was responsible. The researchers were careful to correct for factors other than nutrition that could influence the risk of Alzheimer’s, like education and genetics, but only a randomized, placebo-controlled study can provide the answer.

“I think it’s still an open book,” Dr. Marshall says. “You can’t say this diet is definitely going to work. You could suggest this based on indirect evidence, but it still needs to be proved. This is one step before a clinical trial, and it’s not definitive.”

What you can do today

The evidence for brain-healthy diets is still too preliminary to justify major changes in what you eat. In fact, abandoning a diet with a proven track record of better cardiovascular health, like the Mediterranean or DASH diet, could hypothetically leave you worse off.

“My strongest recommendations are a Mediterranean-style diet and regular physical exercise,” Dr. Marshall says. “There’s good evidence from multiple studies showing that these lifestyle modifications may prevent cognitive decline and dementia.”

Brain aging support

The following behaviors distinguish people whose memory and mental skills remain largely intact in their later years.

  • Protect. Control blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar; don’t smoke; and drink alcohol only in moderation (or not at all).

  • Move. Engage in 30 minutes of moderate physical activity on most days of the week. This includes gardening or other hobbies, household chores, and climbing stairs.

  • Nourish. Eat a heart-healthy diet emphasizing fruits, vegetables, and whole grains; limited sugar and red and processed meat; and modest intake of dairy foods and alcohol.

  • Think. Mental activity may help preserve the brain with aging. Any activity that challenges your memory, concentration, and attention is potentially beneficial.

  • Connect. Healthy brain-agers are commonly people with strong and meaningful ties to other people.

Image: Thinkstock

Posted by: Dr.Health

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