Can a healthy diet reduce your dementia risk?

Research suggests there’s a diet that may help to prevent dementia. Our Senior Dietitian Victoria Taylor explains.

Image of a brain made up of various types of fruit and vegetables

We know that what you eat can affect your physical health. But it could affect your brain too. There’s now some evidence that the right diet could reduce your risk of developing dementia as well as being heart-healthy.

It makes sense to look after both your heart and your brain

Having heart or circulatory disease can raise your risk of dementia, so it makes sense to look after both your heart and your brain. 

The MIND (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) diet was created by researchers at Rush University in Chicago, to help prevent dementia and slow age-related loss of brain function.

It’s a combination of two diets already known to reduce risk of heart and circulatory disease:

  • the Mediterranean diet (based on wholegrains, fish, pulses, fruits and vegetables)
  • and the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet. The DASH diet is designed to control blood pressure – a risk factor for heart and circulatory diseases and dementia. It’s similar to the Mediterranean diet, but with a greater emphasis on reducing your salt intake.

Both diets are backed by lots of research showing they can help your heart health, and some evidence to suggest they can contribute to lower levels of mental decline. The MIND diet names 10 foods linked to improved, or delayed decline in, cognitive function, and five foods to limit.

10 foods to eat regularly to boost your brain:

  • Wholegrains (three or more servings a day)
  • Green leafy vegetables, such as spinach, cabbage, spring greens, kale and salad leaves (one or more servings a day)
  • Other vegetables (one or more servings a day)
  • Nuts (on most days)
  • Beans and lentils (three or more servings a week)
  • Berries, including blueberries and strawberries (two or more servings a week)
  • Chicken or turkey (two or more servings a week)
  • Fish (one or more servings a week)
  • Olive oil (as the main oil or fat you use)
  • Wine (no more than one small glass a day – more than this and it becomes more likely to harm health than help it)
Image of green leafy vegetables and bowls of wholegrains on a dark wooden table

Eating green leafy vegetables and wholegrains at least once a day could benefit the brain.

Five foods to avoid or limit to help your brain:

  • Fried or fast food (less than once a week)
  • Cheese (less than once a week)
  • Red meats (less than four times a week)
  • Pastries and sweets (less than five times a week)
  • Butter (less than one tablespoon a day)

These recommendations are more specific than usual healthy eating guidance. For example, the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet recommend consuming plenty of fruit, but the MIND diet recommends berries specifically. That’s because fruit in general hasn’t been linked to benefits to cognitive function, but berries have.

Does the MIND diet work?

The diet is relatively new. The first study of its effectiveness, which followed people for an average of 4.7 years, was published in 2015, so it’s early days.

That study, of 960 people, suggested that those who stuck most closely to the diet had brains that were the equivalent of 7.5 years younger than those who followed the diet the least.

We need further studies to confirm the findings and refine the specific foods and quantities included

The diet also appears to reduce your risk of dementia even if you can’t stick to every recommendation 100 per cent of the time.

But there’s not enough research for it to be part of national dietary guidelines. We need further studies to confirm the findings and refine the specific foods and quantities included.

We know this type of diet can help protect heart health. Heart disease and dementia share many risk factors (including high cholesterol and obesity), so it makes sense that a heart-healthy diet could also reduce your risk of dementia.

Sadly, no diet can reverse or cure dementia. BHF-funded researchers are looking for ways to prevent dementia, especially vascular dementia.

Image of a bottle and bowl of olive oil and a bowl of olives

Olive oil should be the main oil or fat you use, according to the MIND diet.

 

Why the whole diet matters

When it comes to eating healthily, it’s not about single foods that you do or don’t include, but your whole diet. The nutrients in different foods interact with each other and this can bring additional benefits.

The nutrients in different foods interact with each other and this can bring additional benefits

The whole diet can have a negative effect on your brain too. The ‘western’ diet (high in saturated fat, red meat and refined carbohydrates, and low in fruit, vegetables and wholegrains) has been linked to faster mental deterioration.

If you don’t want to follow the MIND diet, the Mediterranean diet is proven to reduce risk of heart and circulatory disease, and is associated with benefits for the brain as you age.

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