Want to keep your mind sharp? We’ve heard time and again about the benefits of reading, playing crossword puzzles and engaging in social activities, but new research from Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center finds that certain dietary guidelines, including a daily glass of wine, may preserve cognitive abilities and fight dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
“Very moderate alcohol consumption has been observed to slow cognitive decline with age,” Martha Clare Morris, a nutritional epidemiologist and the lead researcher on the study, told Wine Spectator. “Red wine is rich in polyphenols that have been linked to brain protection.” In previous research, these protective properties have shown the potential to delay dementia, a brain condition caused by cognitive decline, and, when consumed as part of a Mediterranean diet, lengthen the lives of patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, the chronic neurodegenerative illness.
The new study, published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association and funded by the National Institute on Aging, takes these findings a step further by developing a new diet based on previous research. “We have been studying the effects of nutrition on dementia for 20 years and felt that it was time to consider an overall diet that incorporated all of the science on nutrition and the brain,” explained Morris.
To do so, they conducted an observational study of older persons and found that following certain dietary guidelines, dubbed the MIND diet, can maintain cognitive functioning at a rate equivalent to being 7.5 years younger than those who did not follow the diet guidelines.
The researchers developed the MIND diet as a hybrid between the Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes eating plant-based foods, olive oil, nuts, fish and wine, and the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), designed to lower blood pressure. The MIND diet, which stands for Mediterranean-DASH diet Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay, integrates guidelines from both diets, but focuses on components shown to provide the greatest protection from cognitive decline. For example, MIND emphasizes consumption of green leafy vegetables over other vegetables, as they have been shown to be more effective against cognitive loss.
Morris and her colleagues enlisted 960 volunteers already participating in the Rush Memory and Aging Project, a study of residents of more than 40 retirement communities and senior public housing units in the Chicago area. From 2004 to 2013, researchers annually assessed participants’ cognitive function, by administering clinical evaluations, and their diets, by collecting surveys concerning their intake of over 140 food items.
To determine the effectiveness of the MIND diet, the researchers used the surveys to assign a score to each participant’s eating habits. Participants received one point for each regularly consumed food item that fell into the “brain-healthy” category: green leafy vegetables, other vegetables, nuts, berries, beans, whole grains, seafood, poultry, olive oil and wine. (Morris noted that they did not collect enough data to differentiate between the effects of red or white wine.)
They were also awarded one point for not regularly consuming items in the unhealthy category: red meats, butter and stick margarine, cheese, pastries and sweets, and fried or fast foods. The highest possible score of fifteen signified the greatest concordance with the MIND diet guidelines.
Analysis of the data showed that participants who most closely followed the guidelines were more likely to experience slower cognitive decline. The diet lowered the risk of Alzheimer’s by as much as 53 percent in participants who adhered to the diet rigorously, and by about 35 percent in those who followed it moderately well. The researchers took note of confounding variables, such as a person’s physical activity, education level and health history, and reanalyzed the data multiple times to control for these factors.
As with any observational study, the researchers cannot say definitively that strict adherence to the MIND diet will keep your brain in impeccable condition. “We are hoping to obtain funding to conduct a randomized trial to directly test the effectiveness of the MIND diet on the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive decline,” said Morris. In the meantime, when you’re sitting down to enjoy a leafy green salad, you can feel good about enjoying a brain-healthy glass of wine.