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New Study Shows More Links Between Diet and Brain Health

Improving nutrition even slightly can have a positive effect

spinner image New Study Shows More Links Between Diet and Brain Health
Leafy green vegetables have been linked to improved cognitive performance.
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An important new study released in London conclusively links diet and Alzheimer’s disease, providing even more evidence that you can protect your brain by watching what you eat. 

At the recent Alzheimer Association’s International Conference in the U.K, researchers revealed that following either a heart-healthy Mediterranean diet or its close cousin, the MIND diet (see details below), can reduce future cognitive impairment by up to 35 percent.

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Although earlier studies had linked heart-healthy diets to better cognitive function, today’s study, by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, is important for having the size (6,000 adults who participated in the Health and Retirement survey) and type of subjects (cognitively healthy at the start) to conclusively link diet and Alzheimer’s and “make the results quite generalizable to a broader group,” says lead researcher Claire McEvoy.

And while the two diets studied vary slightly — the main difference stems from MIND’s bigger emphasis on leafy green vegetables and its restriction on all fruit but berries — McEvoy says focusing on particular foods is not the point. “The diets as a whole seem to have the greatest benefit. Foods and nutrients seem to work together to provide the benefits.” As for how healthy choices like spinach and blueberry salads work their brain-saving magic, ideas vary. “It could be that they reduce inflammation, which has been strongly implicated with cognitive decline,” McEvoy says. Or, she adds, the diets' power could be related to “the profound positive effect that a high-quality diet has on the vascular system,” which in turn affects brain health.

But while science shows that the diets work as a whole, the benefits of decisions like choosing whole grains over processed flour or cooking with olive oil aren’t all or nothing. The study’s results, says Maria Carrillo, chief science officer at the Alzheimer’s Association, show the positive effects of improving nutrition even a bit. “Of course, you get the biggest result if you follow the diet completely, but even little changes can have a significant impact.” 

The MIND Diet

1. Whole grains: Eat at least three servings a day of things like whole wheat, oats and brown rice. And consider the MIND diet your license to eat carbs — of a certain stripe. Processed white flour is a no-no, and sweets and pastries are pretty much verboten. 

2. Leafy green vegetables: The MIND diet kicks the veggie requirement up a notch from the Mediterranean plan, recommending a salad plus one other vegetable every day. 

3. Wine: You get a glass a day, though you are instructed to consume your Pinot only with dinner. 

4. Nuts: Your go-to snack. Opt for about a handful of unsalted almonds, hazelnuts or walnuts, varieties that McEvoy notes are especially high in fiber, vitamins and the omega-3 fatty acids that some have hypothesized fight the inflammation that may compromise brain health.  

5. Fish: You should eat omega-3-rich catch once a week, or possibly more. The results of a separate Nordic diet, also released at the Alzheimer's Association conference today, indicate even greater cognitive protection from a diet especially rich in fish like salmon. 

6. Berries: As with chicken, you should shoot for two servings a week; blueberries in particular are strongly recommended. “They’re high in a particular polyphenol [an antioxidant] that’s been linked to a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s in cardiovascular literature,” says McEvoy.


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7. Olive oil: As with the Mediterranean diet, olive oil is the approved fat. In fact, you’re supposed to use less than a tablespoon of butter or margarine a day.

8. Cheese: The MIND diet has been called a wine-and-no-cheese party, since, unlike its Mediterranean counterpart, it goes very light on Swiss and cheddar. Whole-fat cheese shares a spot on the “unhealthy” list, along with fried or fast food and sweets. You are also allowed less than a serving a week of red meat. 

9. Beans: Whether you go for kidney, chickpea or lima, the advice is to eat them every other day.

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