Can You Prevent Dementia Through Nutrition?


What you eat now will probably help sharpen your mind later. (Photo: Getty Images)

There’s plenty of cutting-edge research on new pharmaceutical treatments that may protect against dementia and Alzheimer’s.

But prevention may be a lot simpler — and what you eat has a great deal to do with it. A growing body of research is focusing on healthy diets to delay, and even prevent, cognitive decline. The flavonoids in berries seem to have a protective effect on brain functioning, as well as eating regimens that emphasize healthy fats like omega-3s. As with so many long-term health factors, the key to clear thinking seems to be a healthy, balanced diet rich in key nutrients.

Among its array of health benefits, research has also shown the gold-standard Mediterranean diet may be helpful in preventing cognitive issues later in life. In a 2013 study published in the journal Neurology, those who followed the diet closely were 19 percent less likely to encounter issues with thinking and memory skills.

But in practice, nutrition is rarely employed by doctors as a dementia prevention strategy, with practitioners choosing to treat cognitive decline once it hits instead of focusing on preventative care in those most prone to dementia.

Hopefully that will change, soon, thanks to a big new randomized, controlled study published in The Lancet, which makes the link between nutrition, lifestyle, and cognitive decline even clearer.

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Finnish researchers put half of 1260 study participants — who were age 60 to 77 and all exhibited risk factors for developing dementia — on a strict regimen of cognitive exercises, exercise that targeted both strength training (1-3 times per week) and aerobic activity (2-5 times per week), and a healthy diet.

For the diet, the researchers followed the Finnish Nutrition Recommendations, which looks like this in terms of everyday goals: 

   •     10–20% calories from protein sources

   •     25–35% calories from fat (less than 10% saturated)

   •     45–55% daily energy from carbohydrates (less than 10% refined sugar)

   •     25–35 grams of dietary fiber

   •     Less than 5 grams day of salt

   •     Less than 5% of total calories from alcohol

Based on BMI, starting diet, age and overall health, a five to 10 percent weight loss was recommended only if necessary. “These goals were achieved by recommendation of high consumption of fruit and vegetables, consumption of wholegrain cereal products and low-fat milk and meat products, limiting of sucrose intake to less than 50 g/day, use of vegetable margarine and rapeseed oil instead of butter, and fish consumption at least two portions per week,”the study authors write.

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Two years later, the researchers tested participants’ brain power using the Neuropsychological Test Battery (NTB), where higher scores generally equate to better cognitive functioning.

Overall test scores were an impressive 25 percent higher in the intervention group when compared to the control. Even better still, scores for executive functioning (the ability to mentally organize thoughts) in the intervention group were 83 percent higher than in the control counterpart.  Processing speed was also a whopping 150 percent better in the set who received comprehensive guidance.

This is a promising finding — and it’s just the beginning. The Finnish researchers now plan to follow the study participants for another seven years to see whether or not the interventions have long-term impacts, like fewer dementia and Alzheimer’s diagnoses.

Just as diet and exercise are essential for extending life, lifestyle choices are also important when it comes to making sure that long life is a mentally-healthy one. Focusing on nutrition really can help long-term cognition, says Lisa Moskovitz, MS, RD, founder of New York Nutrition Group.

“Cognitive decline is a serious issue that affects a large percentage of the elderly population, but fortunately, there is more and more evidence finding effective strategies for prevention—especially proper nutrition,” she tells Yahoo Health. “Healthy foods such as blueberries, fatty fish like salmon, nuts and seeds, whole grains, dark cocoa, and tea are all commonly referred to as ‘brain foods’ for their antioxidants and healthy fats like omega-3s.”

What’s the key to their cognitive powers, exactly? All these foods prevent inflammation, which is the underlying cause of decay in the body and brain.

“Foods rich in antioxidants and healthy fats fight against damaging oxidative stress, promote healthy blood flow to the brain,” says Moskovitz, who also notes some (like dark chocolate) can even “provide a small dose of stimulation”for the day-to-day tasks.

“Incorporate plant-based foods and healthy fats into your diet throughout the day to protect your brain and keep it healthy for as long as possible,” she says.

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