A new study finds that the healthier we eat over the years, the better shape our brains will be in as we age. In the new research, people from all over the world who kept a Mediterranean-style diet in middle age had a reduced risk of cognitive decline as they got older. What was the magic food? There wasn’t one, and the study didn’t try to find one. Much like other areas of health, it’s not one thing – it’s a combination of things. And that’s true whether we’re talking about body health or brain health.
The team tracked the health and habits of almost 28,000 people, 55 and over, who were taking part in two international studies across 40 countries. The team rated how healthy each person’s diet was overall: Healthy diets tended to consist of higher quantities of vegetables, fruits, fish, nuts, soy products, and moderate alcohol intake. The unhealthy foods were things like red meat, deep-fried foods, and sweets.
By the end of the nearly five-year study, 4,700 people had begun to experience cognitive decline. Of the 5,700 people with the healthiest diets, 14% had developed cognitive decline. And of the 5,460 people with the least healthy diets, about 18% of them experienced cognitive decline.
It may not sound like a big difference, but it’s about a 24% reduction in risk for the healthy-diet-keepers. And extrapolating to the millions of Americans who experience cognitive decline without dementia, which is more than 5 million, eating differently might save a great many people from developing it. Globally, the effects are even more profound.
The important takeaway is that it’s not any one food that protects the brain, it’s the whole symphony of foods working together. Study author says, “the consumption of ‘healthy’ choices may be beneficial, but the effect may be lost/reduced with the consumption of ‘unhealthy’ choices. For example, the beneficial effect of fruit may be lost if prepared with high amounts of fats or sugars. Our data suggest that an overall healthy diet is more important than the consumption of any one particular food.”
In other words, you can’t eat a plate of kale for lunch and deep-fried fish and chips for dinner and think you’re safe. Kale is good, but it isn’t that good.
Happily, the study isn’t the first to link diet and cognitive decline. Others have shown that Mediterranean diets – very similar to the type of diet that was considered healthy in the current study – are linked to reduced risk of cognitive decline, and even of developing dementia.
And the new research is one of a growing number that shows that, more generally, the choices that we make for ourselves across a lifetime greatly influence how well or poorly our brains age. Even if a person is genetically predisposed to develop cognitive decline or dementia, it’s not written in stone – lifestyle choices matter. Other factors like regular exercise have also been linked to reduced risk of cognitive decline, and even of Alzheimer’s disease. More recently, meditation, which research has shown to change the brain, structurally and functionally over time, has also been linked to a better preserved brain with age, and even the reduction of mild cognitive impairment. And of course, healthy diets, rich in antioxidants from the super foods – blueberries, cocoa, and dark leafy greens – and in healthy fats from salmon and olive oil, are excellent for the brain and for overall health.
Since the brain is our most important organ, it’s only natural that we should feed it well. But it’s nice to have more and more studies that confirm it.