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Columns: A Nutritionist’s View

Nutrition and Brain Health

Volpe, Stella Lucia Ph.D., R.D., L.D.N., ACSM-CEP®, FACSM

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doi: 10.1249/FIT.0000000000000414
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INTRODUCTION

As we age, we may have some memory loss, which could be a result of too many things on our minds, or it could be more serious. Dementia and Alzheimer's disease are more serious diseases that lead to severe memory loss, declining health, and death. Dementia and Alzheimer's disease are the sixth leading causes of death in the United States (1). Although Alzheimer's disease is mostly diagnosed in older individuals, it has been estimated that approximately half a million Americans younger than 65 years have some form of dementia, including Alzheimer's disease (2). However, nutrition can play a major role in preserving brain health and minimizing memory loss. More research is being published on how good nutrition may even be able to prevent dementia and Alzheimer's disease. Although more research needs to be conducted, the foods that can help maintain brain health are worth consuming in your diet.

WHAT IS BRAIN HEALTH?

Our brains help us to navigate our lives every day. But, what is “brain health”?

The National Institute on Aging, of the National Institutes of Health, defines brain health as follows: “Brain health refers to the ability to remember, learn, play, concentrate, and maintain a clear, active mind. It’s being able to draw on the strengths of your brain — information management, logic, judgment, perspective, and wisdom. Simply, brain health is all about making the most of your brain and helping reduce some risks to it as you age” (3).

NUTRITION AND BRAIN HEALTH

Many foods can contribute positively to brain health, and we should incorporate them into our diets daily. These include the following: green leafy vegetables; other vegetables, especially those with deep purple, red, or orange colors; nuts; beans; whole grains; poultry; olive oil; wine (just one glass a day); fish; and berries. These “healthy brain foods” are those listed from the MIND Diet. The MIND diet stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (Note that the DASH Diet stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension). The MIND Diet was developed by Dr. Martha Clare Morris, a nutritional epidemiologist at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. Specific guidelines for the MIND Diet to be effective for brain health include (5):

  1. Consuming at least three servings of whole grains per day
  2. Consuming a salad each day
  3. Eating one other vegetable every day
  4. Drinking a glass of wine each day
  5. Snacking on nuts almost every day
  6. Eating beans every other day
  7. Consuming poultry and berries at least twice a week
  8. Eating fish at least once a week

Unhealthy foods are allowed; but, less than one serving per week, except for butter, in which case, less than one tablespoon a day of butter is permissible. The unhealthy foods that are to be limited in the MIND Diet include fried or fast food, red meat, cheeses, butter and stick margarine, pastries, and sweets.

What evidence is there that the MIND Diet can help prevent memory loss? Morris et al. (4) studied 960 participants, who were, on average, aged 81 years. They reported that the MIND Diet was significantly associated with slower cognitive decline. This reduction in decline was equivalent to those individuals being 7.5 years younger than their counterparts who did not consume the MIND Diet. They also reported that people who strictly followed the MIND Diet decreased their risk of Alzheimer's disease by approximately 53%, whereas those who moderately followed the MIND Diet decreased their risk of Alzheimer's disease by 35%. Furthermore, individuals who followed the MIND Diet for a longer period had increased protection from developing Alzheimer's disease.

More recently, Berendsen et al. (6) conducted a study comparing the long-term adherence to the MIND Diet with cognitive function and cognitive decline in women. More than 16,000 women, aged 70 years and older, were included in the study. They were participants in the Nurses’ Health Study. Dietary intake was assessed by a Food Frequency Questionnaire between 1984 and 1998. They reported that better long-term adherence to the MIND Diet resulted in improved verbal memory score, but not with cognitive decline, over six years. More prospective studies need to be conducted with the MIND Diet to more accurately assess its effectiveness.

HOW IS THE MIND DIET EFFECTIVE?

The foods that are the mainstay of the MIND Diet are those rich in antioxidants, which help with cognitive function. For example, green leafy vegetables have been shown to prevent cognitive decline (7). In addition, blueberries have been shown to improve memory loss in several studies in older adults and in children (8–10). Furthermore, fish consumption has been shown in some studies to maintain brain health and cognitive function because of their high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids (docosahexaenoic acid [DHA] and eicosapentaenoic acid [EPA]) (11). Aside from the benefits on brain health, consuming the MIND Diet, the Mediterranean Diet, or the DASH Diet also can improve cardiovascular health.

SUMMARY

Cognitive decline can occur at any age; however, it is mostly observed in older individuals. Changing our diets to preserve brain health as we age is an inexpensive way to help us age well and more healthfully. This also will lead to greater decreases in health care costs. Although more prospective research needs to be conducted with the MIND Diet, the foods emphasized in that diet are healthy and ones that have been professed by registered dietitians and nutritionists for years. So, add some blueberries to your oatmeal in the morning, cook with olive oil, and snack on some nuts! It will do your brain good!

References

1. National Institute on Aging Web site [Internet]. Bethesda (MD): National Institute on Aging; [cited 2018 May 9]. Available from: https://brainhealth.nia.nih.gov/.
2. Alzheimer’s Association Web site [Internet]. Chicago (IL): Alzheimer’s Association; [cited 2018 May 9]. Available from: https://www.alz.org/facts/.
3. Alzheimer’s Foundation of America Web site [Internet]. New York (NY): Alzheimer’s Foundation of America; [cited 2018 May 9]. Available from: https://alzfdn.org/?gclid=EAIaIQobChMIzIm51-P52gIVl1YNCh2GpwvyEAAYASAAEgJ54fD_BwE.
4. Morris MC, Tangney CC, Wang Y, et al. MIND diet slows cognitive decline with aging. Alzheimers Dement. 2015;11(9):1015–22. [Epub 2015 Jun 15].
5. Live Science site [Internet]. [cited 2018 May 9]. Available from: https://www.livescience.com/57132-mind-diet.html.
6. Berendsen AM, Kang JH, Feskens EJM, de Groot CPGM, Grodstein F, van de Rest O. Association of long-term adherence to the MIND diet with cognitive function and cognitive decline in American women. J Nutr Health Aging. 2018;22(2):222–9.
7. Morris MC, Wang Y, Barnes LL, Bennett DA, Dawson-Hughes B, Booth SL. Nutrients and bioactives in green leafy vegetables and cognitive decline: prospective study. Neurology. 2018;90(3):e214–22. [Epub 2017 Dec 20].
8. Boespflug EL, Eliassen JC, Dudley JA, et al. Enhanced neural activation with blueberry supplementation in mild cognitive impairment. Nutr Neurosci. 2018;21(4):297–305. [Epub 2017 Feb 21].
9. Whyte AR, Schafer G, Williams CM. Cognitive effects following acute wild blueberry supplementation in 7- to 10-year-old children. Eur J Nutr. 2016;55(6):2151–62. [Epub 2015 Oct 5].
10. Nilsson A, Salo I, Plaza M, Björck I. Effects of a mixed berry beverage on cognitive functions and cardiometabolic risk markers: a randomized cross-over study in healthy older adults. PLoS One. 2017;12(11):e0188173. eCollection 2017.
11. Ghasemi Fard S, Wang F, Sinclair AJ, Elliott G, Turchini GM. How does high DHA fish oil affect health? A systematic review of evidence. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2018 Mar 1:1–44. [Epub ahead of print].

Recommended Resources

Alzheimer’s Association https://www.alz.org/facts/
    Alzheimer’s Foundation of America https://alzfdn.org/?gclid=EAIaIQobChMIzIm51-P52gIVl1YNCh2GpwvyEAAYASAAEgJ54fD_BwE
      National Institute on Aging https://brainhealth.nia.nih.gov/
        WebMD https://www.webmd.com/alzheimers/features/mind-diet-alzheimers-disease#1
          © 2018 American College of Sports Medicine.