Can Certain Foods Hold Off Dementia?
If calcium builds strong bones, carrots improve our vision, and drinking water is good for our complexion, is there anything that can help our brains?
It turns out, there is. Called the MIND Diet – a name that sounds like an ad on Instagram – it’s an approach to eating that has been scientifically proven to slow cognitive decline, even in diagnosed Alzheimer’s patients.
Amy Nickerson, MS, RDN, Senior Lecturer Emerita, Nutrition & Food Sciences for the University of Vermont, has offered courses, community presentations, and even trips to Italy to educate people about the MIND Diet, and to emphasize the connections between diet, lifestyle, and aging well. Here she shares what you need to know.
What is the MIND Diet?
The “MIND Diet” stands for Mediterranean-DASH Diet Intervention for Neurogenerative Delay. Despite the name, it’s not a temporary weight-reducing “diet,” but rather, a long-term food culture and lifestyle. It combines common principles from the typical Mediterranean eating pattern and the DASH (Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension) eating pattern.
The basic nutritional tenets of the MIND Diet, according to Nickerson, are a focus on whole foods, no processed snacks, and lots of vegetables and whole grains. This dietary approach, along with daily physical activity and social interaction, is an effective form of prevention for all types of memory loss, from run-of-the-mill forgetfulness to all forms of diagnosable dementia.
What’s unique about the Mediterranean way of eating?
According to Nickerson, it’s important to first note that “Mediterranean” doesn’t always mean “Italian.” “There are 27 countries that border the Mediterranean Sea. The region includes western Europe, northern Africa and the Middle East, and each country has its own unique food culture,” she says. But there are common elements.
Food has a high priority, and people use quality ingredients. “That leads to a simple way of eating, using whole foods that you can pronounce,” Nickerson says, referencing the lengthy chemical names you’ll find in many processed foods. While the region’s diets are not exclusively plant-based, they are heavy on fruits and vegetables, with small portions of animal protein. Extra virgin olive oil, not butter, is the primary source of fat.
“They dip their bread – good bread, not the sliced stuff we buy at the grocery store – in olive oil,” she says. “Here, people think, ‘I couldn’t possibly eat that much fat.’ But in fact, if you cut back on processed snack foods, there’s room for that,” Nickerson says.
Then, add a “DASH” of sodium reduction
From a nutritional perspective, the DASH diet takes a similar approach, with an emphasis on green leafy vegetables and whole grains. But it adds low-fat dairy, which brings a host of other health benefits, including bone health – also very important for healthy aging.
“There were incredibly eye-opening results from the original DASH trials,” Nickerson says, referring to a host of controlled scientific studies that showed a synergy between calcium, magnesium and potassium – nutrients found in those leaves, grains and dairy – and good cardiovascular health. “In later versions, a sodium restriction was added, but even before they added the sodium restriction, researchers saw a significant reduction in blood pressure,” Nickerson explains.
So how does the brain part work?
As part of our normal metabolic process, we produce compounds called free radicals, which are unstable and destructive to our cells, Nickerson explains. As we age, we produce more and more free radicals. The typical American diet (low in fruit, vegetables and whole grains) contributes to inflammation, which in turn contributes to an increased risk of diabetes and other chronic conditions. In contrast, MIND Diet foods include anti-inflammatory ingredients that ward off free radicals, such as:
- Vitamin E, which is associated with slower cognitive decline and a decreased risk of dementia.
- Vitamin B-12, which protects against confusion and memory loss.
- Folate, which helps maintain normal blood flow.
- Omega-3 fatty acids, which support healthy brain function.
- Phytochemicals (think of the colors in fruit and vegetables), which function as antioxidants that destroy the free radicals associated with inflammation.
Nickerson emphasizes that these benefits only come with consumption of actual foods, not from vitamin or mineral supplements.
Sociability and cultural shifts
When in Sicily this spring, Nickerson spent time in a community south of Palermo known for its large population of centenarians. While there, she saw a group of 15 or 20 men who got together at a club at the end of every day to play cards and socialize. Traditionally, the women’s version of this might have been the preparation of a shared meal for a family or a community.
But due to cultural shifts seen worldwide – as families move away from multi-generational households and toward a dual-income living model – some cooking and daily social activities have been replaced with convenience foods and media-based entertainment. Add in the COVID-19 pandemic, Nickerson says, and we saw a sharp decline in mind-boosting social activity, especially among older people.
“We’re in a period of flux when it comes to our cultural patterns,” she says, and we’re seeing the effects in growing obesity rates among all age groups, as well as in an unfortunate decline in quality of life among many older people. “Medicine is helping us live so much longer now, but we’re ill-equipped to take care of our aging population,” she says. The MIND Diet, she says, is one important antidote.
'It’s never too late'
Nickerson emphasizes that, whether you’re in your 30s or your 60s, it’s never too late to make changes, and even small changes can make a big difference. “Studies of the MIND Diet show that people don’t have to adhere to it entirely,” she says. “Even if you follow it only partially – start eating green leafy vegetables, for example, or start having berries daily – you can see results.”
She also suggests replacing refined sugars with whole grains, and cutting out as many processed foods as possible. If the label doesn’t have ingredients that you would keep in your kitchen, she says, stay away from it.
“Even if you improve just a third of your food intake, you’ll still have a delay in cognitive decline,” she says, adding that one 2022 study showed that adoption of the MIND Diet soon after an Alzheimer’s diagnosis was associated with a decreased risk of dementia symptoms. “The body is really resilient.”
A Simple Recipe to Try: Start your day or enjoy a quick break with this delicious recipe from the UVM Medical Center Culinary Medicine team. Done in under five minutes, it’s quick, indulgent and good for you, too!
Fig and Lemony Ricotta Toast with Hazelnuts and Honey
Makes 1 serving
1 slice whole grain bread
¼ cup part-skim ricotta cheese or non-dairy alternative
Zest and juice of one small lemon
1 fresh fig or two dried figs, sliced
1 teaspoon crushed hazelnuts
1 teaspoon honey
Pinch of flaky sea salt, such as Maldon
- Toast the bread.
- Add the lemon zest and juice to the ricotta cheese and blend well.
- Top the bread with the ricotta cheese, fig slices and crushed hazelnuts.
- Drizzle with honey and sprinkle with sea salt.
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Visit the UVM Medical Center Culinary Medicine team online for this and other healthy recipes. You can also visit our “What’s That Food” playlist on YouTube for delicious recipe videos featuring fresh, seasonal produce and simple growing tips.