A RECENT NEW YORK TIMES newspaper column asks, “Can Certain Foods Really Stave Off Dementia?” Today we explore whether you can use diet to reduce your risk of suffering from this memory-robbing condition.
Dementia is a group of cognitive disorders that affect a person’s ability to think, remember, and reason. Exploring potential preventative measures for this condition is important, given that no known cure exists.
One potential risk-reducing measure is diet. Studies have shown that certain dietary patterns, such as the Mediterranean diet, may reduce the risk of developing dementia. Additionally, specific nutrients and foods, like omega-3 fatty acids and leafy greens, have been linked to improved brain health and function.
While more research is needed to understand the relationship between diet and dementia fully, there is promising evidence to suggest that making dietary changes may be a practical step in preventing this condition.
“Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean,
Tears from the depths of some devine despair
Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes,
In looking on the happy autumn fields,
And thinking of the days that are no more.”
― Alfred Lord Tennyson
Dementia is common
Dementia is a catch-all term for several diseases that impact thinking, memory, and the ability to perform the activities of daily living. Unfortunately, the illness worsens over time. While dementia often strikes older individuals, it is not inevitable with aging.
Here are some of the things that increase dementia risk, according to the World Health Organization:
- age (more common in those 65 or older)
- high blood pressure
- high blood sugar (diabetes)
- being overweight
- consuming too much alcohol
- being sedentary
- being socially isolated
Alzheimer’s dementia causes
While for the most part, we do not know the causes of Alzheimer’s disease. Dementia is related to several diseases that, over time, destroy nerve cells in the brain. These changes typically lead to deterioration in cognitive functioning (the ability to process thought) beyond what we typically observe with normal aging.
Dementia does not affect consciousness, but cognitive impairment is commonly associated with mood changes, behavioral issues, or problems with motivation.
As once-healthy nerve cells (neurons) in the brain cease to work or lose connections with other brain cells, dementia symptoms emerge. We all lose neurons with age, but those with dementia have a much greater loss.
Dementia symptoms vary among individuals but often include the following:
- Memory loss, confusion, or poor judgment
- Difficulty understanding, speaking, and expressing thoughts, or reading and writing
- Getting lost in a familiar neighborhood
- Challenges handling money responsibly (for example, paying bills)
- Repeating questions over and over again
- Using unusual words to refer to familiar things
- Taking longer to finish normal daily tasks
- Losing interest in normal daily activities or events
- Hallucinating or experiencing delusions or paranoia
- Acting impulsively [or mood changes]
- Not caring about other people’s feelings
- Losing balance and problems with movement
I would add the following symptoms: Feeling anxious, angry, or sad about memory loss. Some have personality changes or inappropriate behavior. Others withdraw from social activities or work.
It can be helpful to consider an individual’s current abilities and watch for changes that might signal dementia. Often, symptoms worsen over time (although some may disappear).
Ultimately, many folks with dementia cannot recognize family members or friends, may have challenges moving around, struggle with eating or drinking, and can lose bowel or bladder control.
Common dementia forms
Dementia is an umbrella term for many diseases or injuries that damage the brain. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of the condition, representing 60 to 70 percent of cases.
Other dementia forms include:
- Vascular dementia.
- Dementia with Lewy bodies (abnormal deposits of protein inside nerve cells).
- A group of diseases contributes to frontotemporal dementia (degeneration of the brain’s frontal lobe).
Some develop dementia after a stroke or are associated with infectious diseases like HIV. Others get dementia in the context of harmful use of alcohol, repeated traumatic brain injuries (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), or nutritional deficiencies. There are also mixed forms of dementia.
Diet and dementia — A new review
I am concerned about dementia, not because I have a higher risk but because the idea of losing my mind terrifies me. I try to get adequate sleep and physical activity and embrace intellectual challenges. I often wonder about what role diet might play in mitigating dementia risk.
Alas, diet studies are notoriously difficult to do. The available evidence hints at the ability of some foods and diets to reduce dementia risk. The New York Times recently queried two dozen experts and reviewed the clinical literature to understand the association between nutrition and dementia better.
The article notes that individuals with heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure have a higher risk of experiencing age-related cognitive decline.
A poor diet and sedentary behavior influence the risk of developing these problems. Let’s turn to some evidence-based ways that you may reduce your chances of suffering from cognitive decline.
Two diets that protect against cognitive decline
Keep your arteries healthy, and you will drop your risk of dementia. The Mediterranean diet and the MIND diet — both of which incorporate fresh produce, legumes and nuts, fish, whole grains, and olive oil — strongly protect against cognitive decline.
A 2017 study analyzed the diets and cognitive performance of over 5,900 older U.S. adults. Those most closely adhering to either the Mediterranean diet or the MIND diet had a one-third reduction in their risk of cognitive impairment (than those adhering to these diets less strictly).
Want more evidence? In a 2022 Israeli randomized controlled trial, researchers took brain scans of over 200 individuals split into three diet groups. Here are the results after 18 months:
Those who followed a “green” Mediterranean diet — one rich in a nutrient-packed green plant called Mankai — had the slowest rate of age-related brain loss (atrophy). Those following a traditional Mediterranean diet were close behind. Researchers saw the greatest declines among those who followed regular (less plant-based) healthy diet guidelines that allowed for more processed and red meat.
What is good for the arteries is good for the brain. Commenting in the New York Times, Dr. Walter Willett, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, explains that “pretty much anything that will help keep arteries healthy will reduce risk of dementia.”
Here are beginner’s guides to the MIND and Mediterranean diets:
The MIND Diet
The MIND diet is designed to prevent dementia and loss of brain function as you age. The MIND diet combines the…
Mediterranean Diet 101: Meal Plan, Foods List, and Tips
Rich in flavorful ingredients like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and heart-healthy fats, the Mediterranean diet is…
Diet and dementia — My take
Are there miracle foods when it comes to dodging cognitive decline? No, but consuming lots of fruits and vegetables is good. And no, supplements are not a good substitute. I love this pithy observation of Dr. Ronald Petersen, a neurologist and the director of the Mayo Clinic Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center:
“If it comes from a plant, eat it. If it’s made in a plant, don’t eat it.”