Every 67 seconds, someone in the United States develops Alzheimer’s disease. Unless something changes, the nationwide prevalence of Alzheimer’s is projected to swell to 13 million by 2050 — more than 2.5 times the current prevalence of 5.2 million. Right now, there’s no proven way to prevent Alzheimer’s disease, but research into prevention strategies has identified a number of ways to reduce the risk.
Now, a team of nutritionists have uncovered a preventive measure, in the form of a new diet, that could slash a person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by up to half.
The brain-healthy MIND diet — which stands for “Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay” — was found to be effective at reducing Alzheimer’s risk, even if it was not followed rigorously. In a longitudinal study, people who followed the diet had a 53 percent lower chance of developing Alzheimer’s, and those who only moderately adhered to the diet still lowered their risk of developing the devastating brain disease by 35 percent.
The findings are published in the current issue of Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association.
The MIND Diet incorporates elements of the Mediterranean diet — which is high in fish, healthy fats, vegetables and whole grains and has been found to reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer — and the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet — which is heavy in fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy and has been found to reduce the risk of hypertension, heart attack and stroke.
One of the benefits of the MIND diet, the researchers point out, is that it’s easier to follow than the full Mediterranean diet, which requires daily fish consumption and multiple servings of fruits and vegetables.
Here’s a look at a typical day on the MIND diet:
- 3 servings of whole grains
- A salad plus one other vegetable
- A glass of wine
- Nuts as a snack
- Blueberries or strawberries
- Chicken or fish
- Beans (every other day)
In addition to eating these healthy foods, the MIND protocol requires avoiding foods like butter and cheese, red meat, pastries, sweets and fried or processed foods.
Overall, the diet “emphasizes natural plant-based foods and limited intakes of animal and high saturated fat foods but uniquely specifies the consumption of berries and green leafy vegetables,” the study says. “Blueberries are one of the more potent foods in terms of protecting the brain,” the researchers note, and strawberries have also performed well in past studies of the effect of food on cognitive function.
In order to assess the protective effects of the diet, the researchers looked at nutritional intake data from over 900 older Americans who were already participating in the ongoing Rush Memory and Aging Project (MAP), which studies common conditions of aging and began in 1997. Rather than asking study volunteers to follow the MIND diet, they analyzed data spanning a decade from participants who were already eating in a way that followed the basic MIND diet principles, as well as those who were eating in line with the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet.
Over a five-year period, the team collected data on incidences of Alzheimer’s. The study controlled for a number of other factors known to influence the development of Alzheimer’s, including education, physical activity, smoking and cardiovascular conditions.
The team found that the MIND diet lowered Alzheimer’s risk by 53 percent, while the Mediterranean diet lowered it by 54 percent and the DASH diet lowered it by 39 percent. However, even when the MIND diet was only moderately followed, it still reduced the risk of Alzheimer’s by 35 percent, while moderate adherence to the other two diets seemed to have only negligible protective benefits.
“One of the more exciting things about this is that people who adhered even moderately to the MIND diet had a reduction in their risk for AD,” Dr. Martha Morris, the study’s lead author and the director of Nutrition and Nutritional Epidemiology at Rush University Medical Center, said in a statement. “I think that will motivate people.”
Interestingly, this was not the case for either the DASH or Mediterranean diets — for these diets, the protective benefits were only conferred to those who strictly adhered to it. This is likely the case because the MIND diet was specifically designed to reflect the latest research on nutrition and the brain, said Dr. Morris. If followed for many years, the diet holds even greater promise as an Alzheimer’s prevention measure.
“People who eat this diet consistently over the years get the best protection,” said Dr. Morris. As is the case with many health-related habits, including physical exercise, she said, “You’ll be healthier if you’ve been doing the right thing for a long time.”
While a number of diverse factors — including genetics, environment and lifestyle — may contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s, the research suggests that diet is certainly among these factors. As such, targeting nutrition may be an effective prevention measure. In fact, one recent study estimated that one in three cases of Alzheimer’s could be prevented through lifestyle changes.