Keep Your Brain Sharp With the New MIND Diet

As we age, "losing our marbles" has become an anticipated part of aging.

Fruits and green vegetables are part of a healthy eating plan. (Image: stocksy/lumina)

Forgetting where we parked the car or a conversation we had with a friend. Not being able to finish the crossword puzzle as we once could. But does cognitive decline have to be an inevitable part of aging? New research says maybe not.

A recent study found that a specific way of eating – nuts, fish and wine anyone -- may help slow aging in our brain. Fittingly called the MIND Diet, short for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay, is modeled after the uber heart-healthy Mediterranean and DASH diets, and tweaked to boost specific nutrients important for our noggin.

The MIND Diet Takes Years Off the Brain

In the study of 960 older adults followed for nine years, the difference in cognitive ability was so stark that the brains of MIND diet followers seemed 7.5 years younger than those of people who didn't follow the diet. Who wouldn't love to shave years off of their life? The findings held even when researchers took into account how often participants worked out and their level of education -- both are related to cognitive decline.

Moreover, following the MIND diet cuts the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease in half. Overall, MIND diet followers score better than their peers on tests of memory, perceptual speed and other facets of cognition that tend to weaken with age. So, better memory and processing speed, and Alzheimer risk slashed in half? Sign me up.

What Is the MIND Diet?

The MIND diet is the brain-focused love child of the Mediterranean and DASH Diets. The Mediterranean diet, based on that region's cuisine, centers on fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes and whole grains, while limiting red meat, dairy, sweets and foods high in saturated fat. Fish is eaten two to three times per week, and poultry, nuts, seeds and wine are consumed in moderation. Olive oil, central to the Mediterranean diet, is particularly rich in the monounsaturated fat that provides many of the heart-healthy benefits for which the diet is praised.

The DASH diet is a similar plant-based diet that discourages saturated fat, sugar and sodium and promotes foods rich in protein, fiber and unsaturated fats.

Both the Mediterranean and DASH diets reduce risk factors related to heart disease, including reducing blood pressure and LDL cholesterol and preventing heart attacks and stroke. Science also suggests benefit to brain health.

"A small number of recent high-quality studies suggest key components of the Mediterranean diet --that is, eating more vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes and seafood -- lowered the risk of cognitive impairment, dementia and/or Alzheimer's disease in adults," says Maggie Moon, M.S., RDN, author of "The Elimination Diet Workbook: A Personal Approach to Determining Your Food Allergies."

The Nuts and Bolts of the MIND Diet

(Image: stocksy/raymondforbesllc)

To create the MIND diet, researchers at Rush University Medical Center and the Harvard School of Public Health extensively searched the literature for studies linking dietary components to cognition and dementia. They then built those elements into the plant-based, whole-foods foundation of the Mediterranean and DASH diets to create an eating pattern that delivers these essential brain-boosting nutrients in their optimal amounts. The result is the MIND diet promoting 10 "brain healthy" food groups and discouraging five food groups deemed unhealthy for the brain.

As mentioned, closely following the MIND diet reduces the risk of Alzheimer's disease by 53 percent, which is similar to the reduction in risk from closely following a Mediterranean diet. However, even those who partially follow a MIND diet have a 35 percent lower chance of getting Alzheimer's. In contrast, only strict adherence to a Mediterranean or DASH diet confers any benefit to risk of developing Alzheimer's. So in other words, even a little bit does the brain good.

Even better, the MIND diet is actually easier to follow than the Mediterranean or DASH diets. Fish contain omega-3 fatty acids that reduce oxidative damage in the brain and prevent formation of the beta-amyloid plaques that are the hallmark of Alzheimer's disease. Only one fish meal per week is required to get the full benefits of the MIND diet. This discovery is quite meaningful, because many people do not include fish as part of their regular diet and thus may have a hard time consuming the two to three fish meals per week recommended by the Mediterranean diet.

Only two vegetable servings per day and two servings of berries per week are required on the MIND diet, as compared to three or four servings each of vegetables and fruit for the Mediterranean and DASH diets. It's important to note that while the Mediterranean and DASH diets promote fruits and vegetables generally, the MIND diet hones in specifically on berries and green leafy vegetables.

The MIND diet discourages dairy products like cheese and butter because of their saturated fat content. In contrast to the DASH diet, dairy foods are not promoted even in their low- or no-fat versions. That's not to say that dairy products in some form don't have a place in a healthful diet, but rather that there isn't enough known about their effect on brain health to either recommend or discourage this food category in the MIND diet.

The MIND diet also says "yes" to certain fat types rather than limiting the amount of fat -- now that's our kind of diet. In the PREDIMED Trial referenced by the creators of the MIND diet, participants at high risk of cardiovascular disease who were randomized to a Mediterranean diet supplemented with either extra-virgin olive oil or mixed nuts did better on tests of cognition than participants following a low-fat Mediterranean diet.

The extra-virgin oil and mixed nuts are high in unsaturated fats, and consumption of these foods is associated with reduced levels of inflammatory markers in the blood. Because inflammation in the brain is believed to contribute to development of dementia, researchers in the PREDIMED study propose that the anti-inflammatory properties of extra-virgin olive oil and mixed nuts may explain their positive effect on cognition. While the MIND diet discourages foods high in saturated and trans fat, it does not limit unsaturated fat and expressly promotes nuts and olive oil.

Although it's widely understood that a healthy diet can keep the body functioning, many believe that sharpness of mind declines with age regardless of what you eat. But scientists have pinpointed a number of nutrients that can significantly slow memory loss, preserve problem-solving skills and help retain perceptual abilities with age. The MIND diet demonstrates that certain dietary patterns can have a tremendous effect on mental acuity and can help prevent dementia and Alzheimer's disease. Even following the diet somewhat confers great benefit to brain health.

If you're already eating a healthful diet, you probably won't have to change very much -- but adding in some of the extras promoted on the MIND diet can really improve your brain health. "Specific nutrients, such as omega-3s, vitamin E, folate, carotenoids, and an array of antioxidants, may help explain how eating certain foods is good for brain health," says author Maggie Moon. "But ultimately it's about adopting a habit of eating whole foods in balanced patterns."

Foods to Encourage and Limit on the MIND Diet

Optimal amounts of the 10 key food groups include:

  1. Green Leafy Vegetables – six or more servings per week
  2. Other Vegetables – one or more servings per day
  3. Nuts – five or more servings per week
  4. Berries – two or more servings per week
  5. Beans – three or more meals per week
  6. Whole Grains – three or more servings per day
  7. Fish – one or more meals per week
  8. Poultry – two or more meals per week
  9. Olive Oil – primary oil used for food preparation
  10. Wine – one glass per day

Foods to limit: Red Meat – less than four meals per week Butter and Stick Margarine – less than one tablespoon per day Cheese – less than one serving per week Pastries and Sweets – less than five servings per week Fried/Fast Food – less than one serving per week

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