Are you eating the right foods to protect the health of your brain?

January 14, 2014 in Preventive Care  •  By Michael Scott

Diet is one of the top items on most people’s list of New Year’s resolutions, but the foods you choose can affect more than your weight. According to a growing number of studies, diet can play a key role in protecting your brain against Alzheimer’s disease and other types of age-related cognitive decline. What should you eat to lower your risk of cognitive problems? Closely following a Mediterranean diet has been linked by researchers in a number of studies with a significantly lower risk of cognitive impairment as you age.

What makes the Mediterranean diet a smart choice for protecting your brain’s ability to function (as well as protect the health of your heart and lower your risk of obesity and diabetes)? This approach to eating has an anti-inflammatory effect, which fights inflammation throughout the body. It is also a low glycemic diet, which can have a positive effect on your blood sugar levels.

Typically, a Mediterranean diet focuses on:

  • Whole foods (unprocessed and unrefined, with no artificial additives, sweeteners, colorings, or preservatives)
  • Plant-based foods
  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Lean protein, especially fish
  • Healthy fats, especially olive oil
  • Beans, peas, nuts, and legumes
  • Foods that contain a high amount of fiber, like whole grain breads and pastas and fruits such as blackberries and pears

What the science says about Mediterranean diet and the brain

Over the years, several studies that have found a link between eating a Mediterranean diet and a decreased risk of cognitive problems as you age. One recent study used information collected in a large, national study on stroke that included more than 17,000 men and women with an average age of 64. That study found that the people who consistently and closely adhered to a Mediterranean diet not only had a lower risk of stroke and depression, they also had a 40 percent reduced risk of cognitive impairment. Even people who did not adhere to the diet as rigorously had a similar reduction in their risk of cognitive impairment.

Another study reviewed the data collected in 11 observational studies and one controlled randomized controlled trial. The researchers, who were based in the United Kingdom, discovered that the more closely people adhered to the Mediterranean diet, the lower their rate of cognitive decline and risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

More evidence supporting the positive benefits of a Mediterranean diet was uncovered by researchers comparing the effect of that diet with the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet on cognitive function. The 11-year study, which included nearly 4,000 men and women over the age of 65, found that both approaches to eating protected cognitive function. People who closely followed either diet scored better on cognitive tests at the start of the study. The participants’ cognitive function declined at about the same rate over the course of the study, which means that those who started with higher cognitive function maintained that advantage. The researchers noted that two food groups (whole grains and nuts and legumes) appear to be primarily responsible for the protective effects of both diets.

This year, make your New Year’s diet resolution one that will help protect the health of your brain over the course of your life.

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