Leafy Greens May Ward Off Alzheimer's Disease

Is there an Anti-Dementia Diet?

Leafy greens may help preserve your cognition. Diana Miller/Getty Images

Of all the healthy anti-aging diet advice aimed at preventing age-related diseases like heart disease and cancer, determining which eating plans will help ward off cognitive decline and Alzheimer's disease has been more elusive. After all, dementia in all its forms develops over many years, and teasing out which combinations of foods are actually protective can be challenging.

    Now researchers from the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago believe they've found a diet plan which may help prevent Alzheimer's disease, the most common form of dementia.  In their 2015 paper, published in the journal Alzheimer's & Dementia, nutritional epidemiologist Martha Clare Morris and her team report that older adults who closely followed the so-called MIND diet, had a 53% lower risk of Alzheimer's.  

    What is the MIND diet?  The MIND diet is a hybrid of the Mediterranean diet and the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension or DASH diet.  The Mediterranean diet is typical of people living in countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea (such as Greece, France and Italy), and is characterized by high fish consumption, olive oil, nuts and several servings of fruits and vegetables each day.  The DASH diet is aimed at preventing high blood pressure, and emphasizes whole grains, vegetables, fruits and daily dairy intake.

    While both the Mediterranean and DASH plans are linked with lower rates of coronary artery disease, Morris' team writes that the plans' success at preventing cognitive decline have not been established.  The MIND diet - based on the researchers' reviews of nutrition and aging brain data - represents a kind of tweak of the other two plans, combining the emphasis on plant-based foods, including green leafy vegetables and berries, but does not focus on eating as many other fruits, fish, potatoes or dairy products as either the Mediterranean or DASH diets.

    The MIND Diet Study:   A total of 923 adults between the ages of 58 and 98 years took part, with an average follow-up of four and a half years.  Using regular food-intake questionnaires, the researchers scored subjects on their consumption of items in 10 "brain-healthy" food groups, including:

    • Green leafy vegetables
    • Other vegetables
    • Nuts
    • Berries
    • Beans and legumes
    • Whole grains
    • Fish
    • Poultry
    • Olive oil
    • Wine

    Further, the consumption of five less-healthy food groups was also tracked:

    • Red meats
    • Butter and stick margarine
    • Cheese
    • Pastries and other sweets
    • Fried and fast food

    Why less fruit?  Morris' team writes that two large previous studies have found that consuming two or more servings of vegetables daily - including six or more servings of green leafy vegetables each week - was linked with slower cognitive decline.  Eating fruit, by contrast, was not shown to be protective against memory loss.

    What they found:  During the follow-up period, 144 cases of Alzeimer's disease were diagnosed.

     When the researchers compared how many of the subjects who developed Alzheimer's followed the MIND diet compared with the other two plans, they discovered that the MIND subjects had a 53% lower risk of developing this common form of dementia. Even subjects who followed the MIND plan less closely still had a 35% reduction in Alzheimer's rate compared with those who did not follow it at all - results which still held firm even when other healthy lifestyle behaviours (like physical activity levels and not smoking) and heart disease risk factors were accounted for. 

    Only those following the Mediterranean and DASH diets most closely saw a reduction in their risk of Alzheimer's disease.  The scientists conclude that the MIND diet was "more predictive of slower cognitive decline than either the Mediterranean or DASH diets".

    Bottom line:  Fortunately for those of us looking for the simplest ways to keep our bodies healthy and memories sharp, the research evidence - generally - remains quite basic: keep your stress and cortisol levels down, remain engaged in your community, stay physically active, don't smoke, and eat (and drink) in moderation.

    Even better, previous data has shown that it's never too late to adopt healthy habits to keep you aging well.


    Morris, Martha Clare; Tangney, Christy C; Wang, Yamin; Sacks, Frank M; Bennett, David A; Aggarwal, Neelum T. "MIND Diet Associated With Reduced Incidence of Alzheimer's Disease." Alzheimer's & Dementia, ISSN 1552-5260, 02/2015.

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