Brain food – effect of diet on dementia

Oct 1, 2018 3 min
diet and dementia

The food we eat is more than just fuel, it’s essential for the healthy function of our hearts, our bodies and our brains – so what is brain food? The Greek philosopher Hippocrates said ‘let food be our medicine’ and modern medical research is proving him right. There’s increasing awareness that the development of vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease may be linked to our diets.

A healthy heart and a healthy brain

The importance of diet in maintaining cardiovascular health has long been understood. Eating well can prevent heart disease from developing and improve the health of people with a heart condition. But the wellbeing of the brain and the heart are closely linked – heart food is also brain food. The Social Care Institute for Excellence said:

‘Much of what we know now to be healthy for our heart is also healthy for our brain, so many of the dietary messages we have been encouraged to follow for a healthy heart will also apply to the health of our brains.’

We are what we eat?

Last year a number of studies were presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference. They investigated links between diet, memory and dementia risk. Dr David Reynolds, Chief Scientific Officer at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said that the research ‘highlights the role of healthy eating habits in helping to protect our brains as we get older, with many focussing on Mediterranean-style diets. A Mediterranean-style diet is one low in meat and dairy but rich in fresh fruit and vegetables, cereals, beans, nuts and ‘healthy’ fats like olive oil. This research builds on growing evidence suggesting that following a Mediterranean style diet may hold valuable health benefits as we enter our later years’.

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The Mediterranean diet

The Mediterranean diet focuses on fresh produce, lean protein and healthy fats. Choose balanced and varied meals with plenty of fish, lean meat, pulses and legumes, nuts, seeds and olive oil.

Pick foods rich in the antioxidant vitamins C, E and beta-carotene to protect brain cell damage. These include green leafy vegetables like spinach, broccoli and Kale, tomatoes, peppers and fresh berries.

The MIND diet

As the name suggests, the MIND diet has been designed to improve brain function and prevent dementia. A research study showed that people who kept strictly to the diet were around half as likely to get Alzheimer’s.

It has lots in common with the Mediterranean diet, in fact, it is a combination of the Mediterranean way of eating together with the Dash diet that is used to control hypertension.

The MIND diet is low in the two big baddies: sugar and saturated fats. It emphasises the importance of meals based on fresh natural produce, that is naturally rich in vitamins and minerals.

Dr Clare Walton, from the Alzheimer’s Society, said that diet could help protect against Alzheimer’s and mild cognitive decline:

‘Research suggests that the MIND diet can reduce the risk of developing dementia, and now we see it could also slow down the cognitive decline normally seen with age.

On the MIND diet, you should avoid red meat like beef and lamb, processed food, saturated fats like butter or margarine, cheese, cream and sweet treats like cakes, cookies and pastries. Instead tuck into:

  • Green, leafy vegetables like spinach, watercress and kale and brightly coloured veggies and salads such as peppers, carrots, tomatoes and broccoli. 
  • Nuts, seeds, pulses, beans and legumes.
  • Berries like strawberries, blueberries and raspberries. 
  • Protein from fish, seafood, chicken and poultry.
  • Healthy fats from olives and avocado.
  • A little red wine – but only in moderation, too much and brain function can fall.
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Omega-3 fatty acids are healthy fats that may boost blood flow in the brain, reduce inflammation and decrease dementia risk. They’re found in fish, especially oily fish like tuna, sardines and crab, as well as in vegetarian sources like flaxseed, nuts, vegetable oils and soya.

There’s no single super-food that can cure dementia, but the way we eat can help maintain the health of our bodies and our brains. By focussing on fresh, natural produce and avoiding sugar, salt and saturated fat we may be able to protect our hearts and our minds as we grow older.

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Dr Jane Gilbert

Jane has over 20 years’ experience as a health writer and TV presenter. Jane writes on a wide variety of clinical and care topics – from explaining the latest studies and research to unpacking conditions and discussing treatment options. Jane holds a MBBS degree from Imperial College, London and spent seven years working in the NHS.

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