If you are reading this article, it might be because you have noticed changes in your own cognitive health, or the cognition of a loved one who you want to support.
Cognitive decline can be caused by a number of biological, social and environmental factors, such as mental health conditions such as depression, MCI (Mild Cognitive Impairment) or dementia, drug and alcohol abuse, smoking status, and biological and genetic factors including learning disabilities and chronic conditions such as cardiovascular issues, high blood pressure, stroke, and diabetes.
Signs Of Cognitive Decline
If you have noticed a diﬀerence in your own or a loved one’s cognitive health of late, you might have observed:
• Forgetfulness, such as forgetting appointments or dates, recent events, and conversations
• Feeling overwhelmed and/or helpless when making decisions
• Diﬃculty understanding directions or following conversations
• Reduced attention span
• Disorientation, including forgetting places and directions
• Impulsive behaviours
• Mood swings or diﬀerences in mood, including anxiety, irritability, and depression
• Hallucinations and psychotic features
The Role Of Diet And Exercise
Keeping a balanced diet and a regular exercise regime may help to reduce the risk of dementia by lowering the risk of associated high blood pressure, stroke, cardiovascular diseases, and obesity.
Exercise increases the flow of blood to the brain, which helps to keep the brain functioning at optimal levels and reduces damage to brain cells. Exercise also releases chemicals which help to make the brain more resilient to routine wear and tear.
In fact, evidence released by alzheimers.org.uk suggests that keeping a regular exercise regime may reduce the risk of dementia by 30%.
Eating a healthy, balanced diet helps to keep your brain functioning at optimal levels and reduces inflammatory markers, which may play a role in cognitive decline.
The MIND Diet: How Does It Help?
There are two diets that are particularly eﬃcient in preventing cognitive decline: the Mediterranean Diet and the DASH Diet.
The Mediterranean diet is high in lean protein, unsaturated fats, fish, and fruits and vegetables, and wholegrain foods, and low in refined carbohydrates, saturated fats, and sugary foods.
The DASH diet, standing for Dietary Approaches To Stop Hypertension, focuses on reducing symptoms of high blood pressure (hypertension), and contains foods which are high in magnesium, calcium and potassium, and restricts foods that have high levels of sugars, saturated fats, and sodium.
The MIND Diet combines both these diets to achieve a balanced diet that is high in essential nutrients and fats, while reducing levels of fat, refined sugar, and sodium.
The MIND diet also contains high levels of foods that have been found to boost cognitive health and brain function, including:
- Leafy greens, which are high in nutrients linked to better brain health, including folate, Vitamin E, flavonoids, and carotenoids. The diet recommends at least 6 servings of leafy greens weekly.
- Nuts full of fat-soluble Vitamin E, which is essential for brain health and resilience. Snack on a handful of nuts a few times a week instead of empty-calorie foods like crisps or sweets.
- Berries should be eaten twice a week on the MIND Diet. In a 20-year study on 16,000 older adults, those who ate the most blueberries and strawberries had the lowest rates of cognitive decline. Authors credited this diﬀerence to the flavonoids found in the berries, but more research is required in this area.
- Oily fish has been proven to have a positive impact on brain health and cognition. This benefit has been speculatively attributed to Omegas 3 and 6, however studies specifically on Omega nutrients have been inconclusive. It’s has been suggested that this benefit may be due to the oils and nutrients in the fish itself. The MIND diet therefore recommends oily fish at least once a week.
- Beans are high in B Vitamins, which are known for their role in promoting brain health. Participants should limit their red meat consumption and increase their levels of low carbohydrate plant-based foods.
- Wholegrains, 3 or more per day
- Poultry, 2 or more servings weekly
- Wine (optional), one glass per day
Why The MIND Diet Works
Researchers suggest that one of the ways that the MIND Diet works is by reducing levels of harmful beta-amyloid proteins, which are increased by high levels of saturated fats and trans fats.
While beta-amyloids are naturally found in the body, eating too many saturated and trans fats may cause them to build up, forming ‘plaques’ that interrupt brain cell communication and lead to cell death.
High levels of vitamins and antioxidants, however, may help to prevent these plaques from building up in the first place, so the MIND diet focuses on nutrient rich, low sugar and low-fat foods.
Antioxidants also help to prevent oxidative stress and inflammation, which are two other known contributors to the development of cognitive impairments. Following the Mediterranean Diet and DASH diet is associated with lower levels of oxidative stress, so this is also likely to be the case for the MIND Diet.
In conclusion, the MIND Diet is an evidence-based approach which builds on our current understanding of how our food aﬀects our cognitive health.
Using principles from both the Mediterranean Diet and the DASH diet means that it has all the nutritional value of a healthy balanced diet, while avoiding the high levels of saturated fats, sugars, and sodium which may cause oxidative stress and beta-amyloid brain plaques.
Be aware however, that adding light exercise to this regime is essential to getting the full benefit out of the MIND Diet.