Eat Well to Be Well: Brain-healthy foods could help fight against Alzheimer’s

In the world of nutrition, every so often a study comes out that makes you stop and think about the real life applications that could possibly benefit so many people. A recent study published in March in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association, is one such review.

The study reviewed the MIND diet or Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay, which is a hybrid of the Mediterranean and DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diets. Martha Clare Morris, PhD, a nutritional epidemiologist at Rush University Medical Center, developed the diet, which the study suggests could significantly lower a person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, even if it is not followed meticulously.

Background on Alzheimer’s

Alzheimer’s disease is a chronic, irreversible, progressive brain disease, slowly destroying memory and thinking skills, and is the most common cause of dementia. It is a devastating condition all too many of us are familiar with. Here are some quick facts on this malady from the Alzheimer’s Association:

  • It’s the only cause of death in the top 10 in America that cannot be prevented, cured or slowed.
  • Almost two-thirds of Americans with Alzheimer’s disease are women.
  • One in three seniors die with Alzheimer’s or another dementia.
  • Alzheimer’s kills more people than breast and prostate cancer combined.
  • Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States.
  • An estimated 5.3 million Americans of all ages have Alzheimer’s disease in 2015.
  • By 2025, the number of people age 65 and older with Alzheimer’s disease is estimated to reach 7.1 million – a 40 percent increase and by 2050 it’s projected to reach 13.8 million, unless there is a medical breakthrough to prevent or cure the disease.
  • In 2015, Alzheimer’s and other dementia will cost the nation $226 billion, and by 2050, it could reach as high as $1.1 trillion.
  • Everyone with a brain is at risk for Alzheimer’s disease.

Background on the study

The study testing the MIND diet was conducted on volunteers living in retirement communities and senior public housing units in the Chicago area. The participants were part of the Rush Memory and Aging Project (MAP) overseen from 2004 to 2013.

The results of the study were impressive. Participants who adhered to the MIND diet strictly had a 53 percent reduction of Alzheimer’s disease while those who followed it more moderately had a 35 percent reduction. Therefore, even if a person wasn’t following it precisely, they still seemed to be able to gain benefits from doing so.

What is the MIND diet and how do you follow it?

The MIND dietary pattern is a hybrid of the elemental parts of the Mediterranean and DASH diets. It specifically includes foods with important nutrients based on reviews from medical literature that have shown to be good for the aging brain.

The Mediterranean diet is culturally based in Mediterranean countries and emphasizes the cooking style of that region consisting primarily of vegetables, fish, whole grains, olive oil and red wine. It has been shown to be beneficial for heart health by lowering the risk of a heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure and high blood cholesterol levels.

“I have long been an advocate of the Mediterranean diet. It’s a wholesome way of eating without depriving yourself from delicious foods,” said Dr. David Samadi, chairman of urology and chief of robotic surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. “This study is quite interesting because it leads us further into understanding the effects of lifestyle changes on the development of Alzheimer’s disease. If we make better choices about eating it may stop Alzheimer’s from progressing. We didn’t always know nutrition played a role but we’re learning more and more.”

The DASH diet is a way of eating that focuses more on lowering high blood pressure (hypertension). It encourages reduction of sodium while recommending increasing foods generous in the minerals potassium, calcium and magnesium to bring down blood pressure.

There are 15 dietary components of the MIND diet. Ten components are the “brain-healthy foods” and the other five components are listed under “unhealthy”.

The ten “brain-healthy” foods are:

  • Green leafy vegetables (spinach, kale, romaine, etc.): At least six servings a week.
  • Other vegetables: At least one a day.
  • Nuts: Five servings a week.
  • Berries: Two or more servings a week.
  • Beans: At least three servings a week.
  • Whole grains: Three or more servings a day.
  • Fish: At least once a week.
  • Poultry (chicken or turkey): Two times a week.
  • Olive Oil: To be used as your main oil.
  • Wine: One glass a day (5 ounces).

The five “unhealthy” foods:

  • Red meat: Less than four servings a week choosing lean cuts (round or sirloin and graded “choice” or “select” instead of “prime” which has more fat).
  • Butter and margarine: Less than a tablespoon a day.
  • Cheese: Less than one serving a week.
  • Pastries and sweets: Less than five servings a week.
  • Fried or fast food: Less than one serving a week.

Notice that berries are the only fruit mentioned in the MIND diet. Other fruits can be used, but berries are singled out due to their formidable power in keeping the brain healthy. Blueberries in particular contain a compound called anthocyanins, which is a member of the flavonoid family of polyphenol phytochemicals. Anthocyanins are found in many plant-based foods but particularly in blueberries and strawberries as they provide the bright red and blue colors of those fruit. Past studies have shown the neurological improvements blueberries provide are due to anthocyanins that seem to reduce oxidative stress, decrease inflammation, and increase signaling between neurons.

Strawberries have also been a player in helping reduce mental decline. The Nurses’ Health Study discovered that women consuming two or more half-cup servings of blueberries or strawberries each week had a slower decline in mental acuity, which was equal up to two-and-a-half years of delayed aging.

Take home message

To be perfectly clear, the MIND diet still needs more research before anyone can say it will decisively lessen a person’s chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease. But even so, by focusing on eating less processed and more whole foods, anyone can gain health strides in not only brain health but also heart health.

“Until now, we’ve been approaching Alzheimer’s as an irreversible disease, therefore treating it that way,” explained Dr. Samadi. “Currently, the goal of any treatment is to slow the progression of this condition that destroys memory and cognitive skills. But, with these findings, we may be able to eventually approach it by identifying risk factors early on and creating a prevention path for each patient centered around their lifestyle, especially nutrition.”

For now, it seems the longer a person follows this eating pattern, the greater the chance of lowering the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Combining the MIND diet with regular exercise, mental stimulation, managing stress, and maintaining an active social life makes the risk of Alzheimer’s disease decline even further.

Until there is a cure for this all-consuming disease, at least the MIND diet is a beacon of hope and that is a huge reason to make some adoptions of the diet fit into your everyday eating habits. And for anyone who’s ever had a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease, this diet may offer the best peace of mind yet.

Sources: Morris, M.C., Tangney, C.C., Wang, Y., Sacks, F.M., Bennett, D.A., Aggarwal N. T. MIND diet associated with reduced incidence of Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association (2015) 1-8; Webb, D. Anthocyanins. Today’s Dietitian Vol. 16 No. 3 P. 20; “Blueberries Good for Your Blood Pressure and Brain” Tufts University Health & Nutrition Update 04 May 2015.


Cheryl_Mussatto_pictureCheryl Mussatto MS, RD, LD, is a registered dietitian and an adjunct professor at Allen Community College, Burlingame, where she teaches Basic Nutrition, and at Butler County Community College, Council Grove, where she teaches Therapeutic Nutrition. She is also a certified health and wellness coach. She writes Eat Well to Be Well, a column about health and nutrition, and is also a blog contributor for Dr. David Samadi at www.samadimd.com. Contact her at cmussatto@hotmail.com.


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