A heart-healthy diet may lower risk of cognitive impairment in old age, studies suggest

A diet designed to improve cardiovascular health is associated with improved cognitive maintenance in old age, say researchers.

The finding comes from four large-scale, population-based studies that were reported on at the 2017 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference (AAIC) in London.

Keith Fargo from the Alzheimer’s Association says: “Although the idea that a healthy diet can help protect against cognitive decline as we age is not new, the size and length of these four studies demonstrate how powerful good dietary practices may be in maintaining brain health and function.”

The Mediterranean and DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diets were originally designed to improve cardiovascular health. A combination of these diets, called the Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) diet, has also been associated with potential positive effects on cognitive function and reduced dementia risk in older people.

Image: Food examples in the Mediterranean diet. ©Foxys Forest Manufacture/ Shutterstock.com

In the Health and Retirement Study, which included almost 6,000 older adults, US researchers found that those who followed the Mediterranean diet and MIND diet were at a 30 to 35% lower risk of impaired cognition and demonstrated significant preservation of cognitive function.

Also reporting at the AAIC were researchers from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden who examined the effects of following the Nordic Diet, a traditional Scandinavian diet rich in berries, oily fish, poultry and non-root vegetables. The team found that people who stuck to the diet had improved cognitive function over people who followed a less healthy diet.

In the US-based Women’s Health Initiative Memory Study, which included more than 7,000 women, researchers found that older women who followed heart-healthy diets, particularly the MIND diet, had a significantly reduced risk of developing dementia.

Finally, Columbia University researchers reported on the effects of following a poor diet. They presented data suggesting that such diets are associated with premature brain aging and smaller brain volume as a result of inflammatory mechanisms.

Fargo says that although the studies demonstrate the powerful effects healthy eating may have on brain health, it must be understood that diet is only one aspect of the overall picture.

“Adapting our lifestyles as we get older – for example by exercising regularly, watching what we eat and engaging in lifelong learning – is important in order to maximize the potential to reduce risk of cognitive decline and dementia,” he advises.

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