The MIND Diet
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As I age out, and realize that my memory is not what it used to be, I am naturally drawn to examining studies that can teach me how to preserve my brain, and cognitive functions. Regular readers will recognize this interest by way of my writings on the subject of Alzheimer’s disease (particularly this series of blogs: The Real Cause of Alzheimer’s Disease), as well as various related blogs and newsletters.
This new study I am about to examine may not be revolutionary, but it does provide more information on how we can use diet to prolong our mental acuity and brain health, for as long as possible.
As most readers are aware, Alzheimer’s disease manifests physically in the brain in the form of amyloid plaques and tangles. However, unlike many such studies, this one did not set out to see what role a specific diet could play in preventing these compounds from building up in between the nerve cells of the brain, interfering with our ability to think and problem-solve. This study looks to see if there is a way around that plaque build-up.
The aptly named diet examined herein is called the MIND diet, and is a hybrid of the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) and Mediterranean diets.
The MIND diet had been examined in previous studies, and was found to reduce one’s risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s. Now, a research paper published this month (Sept/2021) in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, has confirmed the value of this diet.
There is More to the Picture Than Plaque Build-up
The fascinating thing about amyloid plaques in the brain, is that autopsies have revealed, “some people have enough plaques and tangles in their brains to have a postmortem diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, but they do not develop clinical dementia in their lifetime“.
These people have been able to maintain cognitive function in spite of this accumulation of brain plaque which should, according to current theory, gum up their brains like anyone else’s, impairing functionality.
And indeed, some studies have found that certain activities can modify the risk factor for dementia and Alzheimer’s, even when subsequent autopsies have found the subjects to show levels of brain plaques that should have left them with fully developed cognitive malfunction.
Such protective measures include cognitive activities later in life (learning a new language, or taking up a musical instrument), and a high level of physical activity. The ability of these activities to keep the brain functioning well, even in the face of plaque build-up in the brain, is called the “cognitive resilience hypothesis”.
In this particular study on the MIND diet, researchers wanted to find out if their diet would support cognitive resilience.
Researchers followed a group of people living in greater Chicago, who had been participants in the “Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center’s ongoing Memory and Aging Project”, started in 1997. The 569 subjects were mostly white, showed no symptoms of dementia, and agreed to have yearly clinical evaluations, and cognitive testing, up until their deaths, at which point their brains could be autopsied.
In 2004, the subjects began to participate in a food frequency questionnaire, which determined how often they consumed 144 specific food items. Participants were given a MIND diet score based on the amounts of these foods they consumed: focus was on either the ten “brain-healthy” food groups, or the five unhealthy food groups (butter and margarine; cheese; fried or fast foods; pastries and sweets; red meat). (Here I would quibble and suggest that butter and margarine should never have been put in the same category.)
Results of the Study
According to Klodian Dhana, MD, PhD, lead author of the paper and an assistant professor in the Division of Geriatrics and Palliative Medicine in the Department of Internal Medicine at Rush Medical College: “We found that a higher MIND diet score was associated with better memory and thinking skills independently of Alzheimer’s disease pathology and other common age-related brain pathologies. The diet seemed to have a protective capacity and may contribute to cognitive resilience in the elderly. Diet changes can impact cognitive functioning and risk of dementia, for better or worse. There are fairly simple diet and lifestyle changes a person could make that may help to slow cognitive decline with aging, and contribute to brain health.”
Obviously, those with a higher MIND diet score in the study were those who mostly avoided the five unhealthy food groups. Thus, to follow their lead, one would eat less than one serving per week of pastries and sweets, whole fat cheese, and fried or fast foods, and limit butter to about one teaspoon per day.
A few more quibbles: In this newsletter (Is Cheese Good for You?) I provided an argument that cheese can be a healthy food. And, in another newsletter (Butter-up Your Social Life) I address the valuable attributes of butter. Again, I believe the study was mistaken in putting butter and margarine into the same category, as butter is a food, while margarine is not.
The debate about cheese may come down to a point I made in last week’s newsletter, concerning the difference between European cows and North American breeds. All the more likely since the pro-cheese study discussed in my newsletter was done in Europe.
As far as sweets go, if you have the desire for them, I suggest switching from pastries to chocolate, since dark chocolate (at least 70%) has many benefits for cognitive health (more on the subject found within this newsletter).
Red meat was not specifically mentioned in the summary, though it was included in the five unhealthy foods. In the case of red meat consumption we can look at the Mediterranean Diet which suggests red meat be eaten “rarely”. Alternatively, if one is following a high meat-based diet (e.g. Paleo, Weston Price Diet), then one should ensure the meat is organic and from grass-fed animals, in order to avoid unhealthy omega-6 fatty acids, synthetic hormones, antibiotics, etc.
Looking at the healthful foods, here is a rough guideline suggesting how often to eat these foods in order to gain maximum benefit from the MIND diet.
- 3 servings of whole grains, a green leafy vegetable, and one other vegetable, every day. (Whole grains do not include whole grain breads.)
- A glass of wine every day (I would recommend red, and definitely organic).
- Eat beans/legumes every two or three days.
- Use nuts for snacking most days.
- Fish at least once a week (I would recommend two or three times a week. Canned tuna does not count.).
- Chicken at least two times per week. (I imagine turkey would be a viable option, but in either case, ideally not industrial factory-produced fowl.)
- Berries at least twice per week.
- Consume olive oil liberally.
Why Does This Diet Work?
Those foods constituted “healthful” for the purposes of this study, are believed to contribute to brain health due to their antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and neuroprotective qualities. For example, green leafy vegetables are rich in beta-carotene, folate, flavonoids, lutein-zeaxanthin, and vitamin E, all of which have been shown to contribute to better cognitive functioning.
Vitamin E (also found in nuts) helps to protect neurons from free radical damage. And, folate (folic acid), when deficient in the diet, is associated with neurotoxicity, and with elevated homocysteine levels, both of which are related to increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Berries, when consumed regularly, “increase neurogenesis, insulin-like growth factor-1 signaling, and reverse neuronal aging by reducing oxidative stress. In older adults, oxidative stress is a significant contributor to neurodegeneration independently of brain pathology”.
All in all, “these findings suggest that the mechanism by which the MIND diet supports cognitive resilience is not related to the levels of pathology in the brain…These findings also have public health implications because many older individuals exhibit neuropathology that contributes to cognitive impairment, and this large group may benefit from the adherence to the MIND diet”.
The takeaway here is that, even if we are developing amyloid plaques and tangles in the brain, all is not yet lost. By mixing the aforementioned dietary advice with physical activity, and developing new neural pathways, via picking up a new skill that requires complex learning (language, music, etc), we stand a good chance of staving off the symptoms of declining brain function.
Remember however, if you are a brain surgeon, brain surgery will not help protect your brain, and if you are a classical pianist, playing piano will not protect your brain either. For this to work, one must develop a new skill: a pre-existing skill will not be protective, now matter how complex it is.
Finally, considering the value attached to the nutrients found in the MIND Diet, it would certainly be of value to ensure we have a good supply of those basic elements (including folate, vitamin E, and a range of antioxidants). Therefore, a product such as our NutriPods can be of great value for those seeking an easy way to cover those bases, and support their healthy dietary approach.