A diet for Alzheimer’s prevention

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe MIND diet may help you avoid Alzheimer’s.

When it comes to aging, it’s a safe bet that cognitive decline is a bigger concern than weight loss for lots of people.  Since there are no effective medical treatments to reverse Alzheimer’s Disease, prevention is the best strategy we have.  And, no surprise, there’s evidence that lifestyle choices can affect a person’s risk for developing dementia.  Like heart disease risk, Alzheimer’s risk is related to elevated blood pressure and cholesterol.  So clearly lifestyle factors, including diet, impact the disease process.

Research on the link between diet and dementia is tricky:

  1. In order for research data to be meaningful, people have to be followed for years.  Years.  Alzheimer’s, and other dementias, take a long time to develop.  Study subjects would have to be on special diets for years.  Researchers would have to stay in contact with people for years, and be able to sort out all the other factors that can influence risk, such as genes, head injury and environmental exposures.
  2. There’s no guarantee that study subjects would stick to special diets, or start making other lifestyle changes as new information comes along.  What if half the subjects read that a nutritional supplement affects Alzheimer’s risk and they start taking the supplement, without telling the researchers.  Now the data is skewed.
  3. We have no idea when the process of cognitive decline starts.  At age 50?  30?  18?  A study that uses subjects aged 60 and older might not show any effect on Alzheimer’s disease because the process started many years before, when people were 45 years old.

Well, those are some of the problems with this type of research.  Is there any good news?  We get hints here and there from diet surveys, and a new study suggests that, yes, diet can lessen the likelihood of developing dementia.  It’s called the Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay or MIND Study.  Sounds complicated.  It’s not.  Basically the MIND Diet is a mash-up of the Mediterranean Diet, the DASH diet and some of the researcher’s own food variations.  There are good foods and bad foods:

Good (“brain healthy”)

  • green leafy vegetables
  • other vegetables
  • nuts
  • berries
  • beans
  • whole grains
  • fish
  • poultry
  • olive oil
  • wine

Bad (limit these)

  • red meat
  • butter
  • margarine
  • cheese
  • sweets and bakery desserts
  • fried and fast food

The rules are similar to the Mediterranean and DASH diets, with slight differences.  The MIND diet doesn’t focus on fruit in general; rather the recommendation is to eat berries, particularly blueberries and strawberries, which supposedly are shown to have brain health benefits.  My opinion?  I’ve heard about blueberries, but not strawberries.  The type of research that makes those claims is typically funded by trade groups aiming to promote their particular crop, so the studies just focus on one fruit, rather than fruit in general, or comparing several different fruits.  So I’m not too impressed by those types of claims.  Not to mention, none have been done for the requisite years that would establish a clear link to cognitive health.  See #1 and #2 above.  I doubt eating strawberries every day will help you remember why you went down to the basement, or where you left the keys.

The study that supports the MIND diet isn’t terrible, but the results aren’t spectacular either.  Almost 1000 people aged 58 to 98 were followed at some point between 2004 and 2013.  But not everyone was followed for all of that time (remember: YEARS are critical for this type of research).  Rather than telling people what to eat, the researchers simply measured what they did eat and classified people as to whether their diets were more Mediterranean-like, more DASH-like or more MIND-like.  Or not like any of them.  For people who closely followed Med or MIND diet rules, risk for Alzheimer’s was 54% lower.  For DASH it was 39% lower.

Great.  Diet can be helpful.  The researchers noticed that some of the subjects stuck to those diets “moderately” well.  They didn’t clarify what “moderate” means, so that’s pretty confusing.  But they claim that the people who were moderate MIND dieters also had a significantly lower risk for Alzheimers.  In other words, you don’t have to follow the Good and Bad food lists perfectly, all the time.

Researchers’ conclusion: the MIND Diet is a great plan because it seems to help even if you don’t stick to it 100% perfectly.  And it’s easy to follow and supposedly less restrictive then the Mediterranean diet, which calls for daily fish consumption and lot of fruits and vegetables.  …..  Really?  I’m unaware of a rule about daily fish consumption.  And is there a problem with daily vegetables and fruit?  Frankly I think the contrast the MIND Diet authors make is pretty self-serving.

My conclusion: the MIND Diet isn’t a bad plan.  It’s a whole lot like the Mediterranean diet and DASH diet.  If you think it’s easier to follow this particular set of food rules vs. the Mediterranean Pyramid or DASH recommendations, then go for it.  All of these diets follow general principles of healthy eating that can reduce risk for heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, inflammation, hypertension, certain cancers and, yes, perhaps Alzheimer’s disease.

In case you’re interested: ways to include more berries in your diet

  • in a bowl, without added sweeteners for dessert or snack
  • on yogurt
  • on cereal
  • in a fruit salad
  • in a smoothie
  • added to a tossed green or spinach salad

 

 

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