Meals sourced from the Mediterranean have been associated with tougher bones, a more healthy heart, and a longer life. Added with a reduced risk for diabetes and high blood pressure, the Mediterranean diet may sound too good to be true. However, new studies have shown that a diet rich in Mediterranean foods, or one of its dietary cousins, can also significantly lower your risk for dementia.
Research that is being presented at the International Alzheimer’s Conference this week in London found that older adults that had followed a Mediterranean style diet, or the similar MIND diet, lowered their risk for dementia by almost 1/3.
Lead author, Claire McEvoy, from the University of California, San Francisco’s School of Medicine, stated, “Eating a healthy plant-based diet is associated with better cognitive function and around 30% to 35% lower risk of cognitive impairment during aging.”
Since the study was conducted on a segment of the population that is closely representative to our older population nationwide, McEvoy expressed that “the findings are relevant to the general public.”
Co-author of the recent book, “Super Genes” with Deepok Chopra, Rudolph Tanzi, stated though “35% is a greater than expected decrease for a lifestyle choice, I am not surprised.” Tanzi also emphasizes that “the activity of our genes is highly dependent of four main factors: diet, exercise, sleep, and stress management. Of these, perhaps diet is most important.”
McEvoy’s study investigated the eating habits of about 6,000 elder Americans with the average age of 68. After adjusting for age, gender, race, education, lifestyle and health issues such as obesity, hypertension, diabetes, depression, smoking, and physical inactivity, the team discovered that those who ate a largely Mediterranean diet, or followed MIND (Mediterranean Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay), had a 30% to 35% lower risk for cognitive impairment.
The longer people that stayed on those diets, the better they functioned cognitively, said McEvoy. Furthermore, those who marginally followed the diet also may have benefited, but by a smaller margin. It is estimated that they were 18% less likely to exhibit signs of cognitive impairment.
So, What are the Mediterranean and MIND Diets?
Massive amounts of beef shish kebab, rice, hummus and pita bread, will not cut it in this diet, as this is not the daily menu of those that live by the Mediterranean seaside.
The actual Mediterranean diet is very simple, all plant-based cooking, and the main focus of each meal is on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and seeds, with some nuts and a lot of olive oil. Extra virgin that is. Refined sugar, flour, butter and other non-plant based fats are rarely consumed, if at all.
Red meat is a rarity in this diet, but is more common in flavoring a dish. Most meals include poultry, dairy, and eggs, but even then, they are in much smaller portion than in the Western diet. Fish though, are a staple in this diet.
The MIND diet however, takes the best of brain foods from the Mediterranean diet and melds them with the infamous salt reducing DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension). MIND stresses focus on eating from 10 different healthy food groups and rejecting unhealthy foods from five distinct groups.
MIND was first designed and developed by Martha Clare Morris, a nutritional epidemiologist at Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center.
Followers of the MIND diet eliminate butter, margarine, red meats, cheeses, fried or fast food, and lastly, sweets. A minimum of at least 6 servings of leafy green vegetables must be consumed each week such as spinach or kale, and at least one serving a day of another vegetable. Three servings a day of whole grains is also non-negotiable.
In addition, MIND dieters also add in at least 3 servings of beans, 2 or more servings of fruits or berries, two servings of chicken or turkey, and one serving of fish per week. Olive oil is the main ingredient for every dish. Drinking a glass of wine a day is not required, but also a little more than optional.
The statistics found behind this diet are shocking.
Morris discovered, in 2015, that out of the 923 Chicago-area seniors that she studied, those who followed the diet religiously had a 53% lower chance of getting Alzheimer’s. Those who followed it loosely lowered dementia risk by around 35%. Additional studies showed similar results.
A three year study is currently under commission to further prove the connection between the MIND diet and dementia risk.
Another study introduced at the conference also studied the impacts of the MIND diet. Researchers from the Wake Forest School of Medicine tracked 7,057 women, with an average age of 71, for almost 10 years and findings showed that participants who followed the diet closely had a 34% reduced risk of forming Alzheimer’s disease.
Research on 2,223 dementia free Swedish over the past six years who used the Nordic Prudent Dietary Pattern (NPDP) diet showed a higher level of cognitive function as opposed to their counterparts who followed diets rich in processed and fatty foods. The NPDP diet avoids sweets, fatty, and processed foods. On the contrary, the diet focuses on eating non-root veggies; fruits such as apples, pears, and peaches; pasta or rice; poultry, fish, and vegetable oils with a few glasses of wine in moderation.
Lastly, a study on MRI brain scans of 330 cognitively normal adults, at an average age of 79 years, found that foods that increases inflammation in the body, such as in sweets, processed, fried, and fatty foods had also increased the chances for a shrinking brain (associated with aging) and pronounced lower cognitive function.
Although scientifically controlled experiments are still required to empirically prove this causal link, it is apparent that the four observational studies presented at the conference more than suggests a relationship, as Keith Fargo, Alzheimer’s Association Director of Scientific Programs and Outreach, stated: ” Although the idea that a healthy diet can help protect against cognitive decline as we age is not new. the size and length of these four studies demonstrate how powerful good dietary practices may be in maintaining brain health and function.”