MIND diet created to help protect cognitive health

Diet and nutrition
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3 min read

Dear Doctors: My father is 76 and lives alone. Lately he's gotten worried about dementia. I saw on the news that the MIND diet can help with that. If that's true, I'm hoping we can use that to get him to cut down on junk food, which he loves. What else can help him stay sharp?

Dear Reader: An expanding body of research suggests that diet and nutrition can play an important role in protecting cognitive health as we age. The Mediterranean diet -- with its focus on fresh produce, grains, legumes, fish, lean animal proteins and healthful fats -- is often linked to improved physical and mental health. Now research around the MIND diet has put this nutritional approach back into the headlines. As with previous studies, research on the MIND diet found that a focus on fresh rather than processed foods was associated with improved cognition.

The concept of the MIND diet arises from a study published by researchers at Rush University in 2015. (For those who are curious, the full -- and unwieldly -- name of the diet is the "Mediterranean-Dietary Approach to Systolic Hypertension (DASH) diet intervention for neurodegenerative delay," which is shortened to MIND.) In analyzing health data gathered from 960 older adults over the course of five years, the researchers found a correlation between the dietary approach of the Mediterranean diet (and similar diets) and a slower rate of decline in cognitive function. Using that data, they crafted the MIND diet.

Like its forebears, the MIND diet emphasizes fresh vegetables, fruits and leafy greens, beans, legumes, whole grains, nuts, healthful fats and lean proteins. It also limits red meat, cheeses, fried foods, sweets and processed foods.

But the MIND diet takes a slight detour. It specifies a minimum of six weekly servings of leafy greens, as well as two servings of fresh berries per week. These two food groups were found to be linked to improved cognitive outcomes in the study. It's also important to note that, in the studies with the most robust link between diet and cognitive health, the participants were long-time adherents to this type of eating. It's a yearslong lifestyle, not a short-term diet.

Additional factors can affect cognitive health. These include the use of tobacco products, alcohol and drugs; chronic inflammation; substance abuse; physical activity; social engagement; and age-related changes to the brain. Regular exercise is key to maintaining brain health. This includes physical exertion of moderate intensity, which results in an increase in heart rate.

Diet and exercise are important factors in lowering the risk of Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Both of these have been shown to be risk factors for several types of dementia, including Alzheimer's disease and vascular dementia.

Regular contact with other people, both in casual and social settings, is also crucial to staying sharp. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, social isolation is associated with a 50% increase in the risk of developing dementia.

Talk to your dad about all of this. You can ease his anxiety and help him craft a more healthful lifestyle.

(Send your questions to [email protected], or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o UCLA Health Sciences Media Relations, 10960 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1955, Los Angeles, CA, 90024. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)