There is significant evidence that the foods you eat can influence your risk of dementia and cognitive decline as you age. Although many people consider cognitive impairment to be a normal part of aging, it is not inevitable. Brain health can be maintained and even improved by following a healthy and nutritious diet.
According to a June 2015 study published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association, following the MIND diet can slow brain aging by 7.5 years and reduce the chances of developing Alzheimer’s disease, ranked 7th on the list of leading causes of death in the U.S and the most common cause of dementia. A 2018 study published in The Journal of Nutrition, Health, and Aging found this way of eating can lower the risk and delay the progression of Parkinson’s disease among older people as well.
The MIND (acronym for Mediterranean-DASH intervention for neurodegenerative delay) diet was designed by nutritional epidemiologist Martha Clare Morris and her colleagues at Rush University Medical Center for this very purpose—a hybrid of the Mediterranean and DASH diets, the MIND diet combines elements from the two diets with the main goal of preserving cognitive functions. Evidence suggests that the MIND diet can help lower Alzheimer’s disease risk by 35%-53%, depending on how strictly one follows the diet.
Benefits of the MIND Diet
May Increase Your Lifespan
Researchers found that close adherence to the MIND diet was associated with a reduced risk of dying from all causes in a 12-year study involving 882 senior adults. Those in the top one-third of strictly adhering to the diet had a 37% lower risk of death compared to those in the bottom third.
May Reduce Oxidative Stress and Inflammation
Following the MIND diet has been associated with lower levels of oxidative stress and inflammation, two factors that together can be detrimental to the brain. Vitamin E that is found in green leafy vegetables, nuts and olive oil and the antioxidants in berries may protect the brain from oxidative stress, which causes cell damage that can negatively impact brain function. Also, the omega-3 fatty acids in fatty fish are touted for their ability to lower inflammation in the brain which can help avoid the onset of chronic diseases and have been associated with slower loss of brain function.
Slow Age-Related Cognitive Decline
A study found that older adults who had a history of stroke experienced a slower rate of cognitive decline over 6 years of high adherence to the MIND diet. Additional research shows older adults who closely followed the MIND diet over 5 years had a slower decline in various aspects of cognitive function like semantic memory, episodic memory and visuospatial ability.
Reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s disease
Beta-amyloid proteins that are found naturally in the body can accumulate and lead to plaque build-up in the brain which can hinder communication between brain cells, eventually leading to brain cell death. These plaques are seen as one of the primary causes of Alzheimer’s disease by scientists worldwide. The many vitamins and antioxidants that the MIND diet foods contain may help prevent the formation of beta-amyloid plaques in the brain, according to animal and test-tube studies. In addition, human observational studies have shown that consuming saturated and trans fats (found in the 5 foods to avoid on the MIND diet), can increase beta-amyloid’s protein levels and can double the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
May Lower the Risk of Parkinsonism
Parkinsonism is a motor syndrome that manifests as rigidity, tremors, and bradykinesia, (slowness of movement). Parkinsonism is caused by Parkinson’s disease in about eighty percent of cases of parkinsonism.
According to a study in a 2018 issue of the Journal of Nutrition, Health, and Aging, older adults who strictly adhered to the MIND diet for 5 years had a 13% reduced risk of developing symptoms of parkinsonism.
May Reduce the Risk of Breast Cancer
A 2021 study in Clinical Breast Cancer found that women who closely followed the MIND diet had a 60% lower risk of breast cancer compared to those who didn’t closely follow it.
10 Foods to Eat on the MIND Diet
Green, leafy vegetables: Aim for six servings per week of kale, spinach, lettuce, collards etc. that are packed with nutrients like vitamin E, folate, flavonoids and carotenoids that are linked to improved brain health.
Berries: Try to eat two or more servings a week as research for brain health highlighted this particular fruit for its brain-boosting benefits! Studies have shown that strawberries and blueberries have been linked with slowing rates of cognitive decline in older adults, crediting the high levels of flavonoids (antioxidants) found in berries.
All other vegetables: Include another vegetable in addition to the leafy greens at least once a day. Try to go for non-starchy vegetables like broccoli and cucumbers that are packed with nutrients and have a lower number of calories than starchy vegetables like potatoes and corn.
Whole grains: Try to eat at least three servings daily of whole grains like wild rice, whole-wheat pasta, farro, oats, brown rice, quinoa, rye, spelt and 100% whole-wheat bread. They are a key source of fiber which aids digestion and blood sugar regulation.
Olive Oil: Use this Mediterranean diet staple as your main cooking oil and try to avoid butter and margarine. Go for ‘extra virgin’ olive oil which is the least processed form of olive oil and choose a dark or opaque bottle since light causes it to go bad faster.
Nuts: Aim for at least five servings of nuts each week as they are packed with fat-soluble vitamin E which is known for its brain-protective qualities. Vary the nuts you eat, ensure you go for the unsalted kind without extra sodium, oils or sweeteners, and opt for dry roasted or raw nuts.
Beans: Try to include black/white beans, kidney beans, chickpeas, soybeans, lentils etc. in at least four meals every week as they are an excellent source of protein and B vitamins which promote brain health.
Fish: Eat this lean source of protein once a week, specifically fatty fish like salmon, tuna, trout and sardines that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
Poultry: Aim for 2 servings of chicken or turkey per week. Keep in MIND that fried chicken is not encouraged on this diet.
Wine: Aim for just one glass daily, specifically red wine which contains the compound resveratrol which research shows may benefit brain health and lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.
5 Foods to Avoid on the MIND Diet
Butter/Margarine: Aim to eat less than 14 grams (1 tablespoon) daily and opt for olive oil as your main cooking fat.
Fried Foods: The MIND diet highly discourages fried food, especially fast-food meals that should be limited in consumption to less than once a week.
Cheese: Try to limit your cheese consumption to less than once a week.
Red meat: The MIND diet recommends having no more than three servings each week of beef, lamb, pork etc. or any products made from red meats.
High Salty/Sugary Foods: Brownies, frozen meats, ice cream, cakes, donuts etc. Try to limit these desserts and processed junk foods to no more than four times a week.
The common factor in these five foods is that they all contain saturated and trans fats. Research shows that these fats may be directly linked with a wide array of diseases like dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and heart disease. Observational studies in human and animal research suggest that consuming saturated or trans fat in excess is associated with cognitive decline.
MIND Diet Meal Ideas
A licensed nutritionist or dietitian can help you create the best meal plan for your unique nutritional needs. But if you want to get started with some delicious MIND diet meals, here’s some inspiration to kick you off:
Breakfast: 2 scrambled eggs, 1 slice whole wheat toast with organic almond butter
Dinner: Whole-wheat spaghetti with sauteed shrimp and pomodoro sauce, side salad
Breakfast: 1 cup Greek yogurt topped with strawberries and sliced almonds
Lunch: Black bean and butternut squash tacos
Dinner: Lentil salad with Mediterranean veggies and lemon dijon vinaigrette
Breakfast: 1 cup oatmeal with blueberries; 1 hard-boiled egg
Lunch: Pan-seared salmon, brown rice, and lemon-garlic steamed broccoli