Health and Wellness

The MIND diet is touted for its brain-boosting benefits—but can it really lower risk of dementia? What a neurologist thinks

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Certain lifestyle factors can lower your chances of developing dementia, from physical activity to brain-stimulating exercises and even the foods you incorporate in your diet.

"[Some] diets have been shown across the board, in many studies, to be associated with less risk of dementia, less risk of brain diseases and longer lifespans," according to Dr. Hussein Yassine, associate professor of neurology at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California.

These meal plans are mostly plant-based and include healthy oils, antioxidants and unsaturated fats like fatty fish, Yassine tells CNBC Make It. They also aren't dependent on processed foods and usually don't include them.

This may sound very similar to popular diets like the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet, and researchers thought so, too.

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The MIND diet defined

The MIND diet is the Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay Diet, which was coined in a 2015 study led by nutritional epidemiologist Martha Clare Morris.

Researchers discovered that people who adhered to the Mediterranean and DASH diets had better levels of cognitive functioning compared to people who didn't follow those diets. The study also found that eating whole grains, leafy greens, nuts and berries was also associated with better brain health, according to the New York Times.

"Both the Mediterranean and DASH diets had already been associated with preservation of cognitive function, presumably through their protective effects against cardiovascular disease, which in turn preserved brain health," according to The Nutrition Source, Harvard T.H. Chan's School of Public Health's hub for nutrition information.

These are the foods that are included in the MIND diet, as listed in The Nutrition Source:

  • Whole grains
  • Vegetables, especially green, leafy ones
  • Nuts
  • Beans
  • Berries
  • Poultry
  • Fish
  • Olive oil

The MIND diet encourages you to limit your consumption of these foods:

  • Pastries and sweets
  • Red meat
  • Cheese
  • Fried foods
  • Butter / margarine

'We have to be more holistic'

The MIND diet received some skepticism about its effectiveness on dementia prevention after the first clinical trial was published in August in The New England Journal of Medicine.

Over the course of three years, more than 600 people ages 65 and up were split into two groups: one group followed the MIND diet and the other group followed their normal diets. Additionally, all participants were trained to reduce their calories to lose weight.

At the conclusion of the study, there weren't significant changes in cognition levels for those who followed the MIND diet compared to those who didn't.

But Yassine thinks there's more nuance to this outcome, and that the conclusion shouldn't be that the MIND diet isn't effective.

"If you take somebody who is not having a nutritious diet, and then they also don't exercise much, they also don't sleep well [and] they have risk factors for dementia," says Yassine, "these risk factors tend to aggregate."

"And then if you change only one [lifestyle factor], which is in this case the MIND diet, it's likely to be less effective. It's not that it's not effective."

In order to reap the benefits the MIND diet can have on dementia prevention, "we have to be more holistic," he adds.

Coupled with a healthy diet, to lower your risk of developing dementia, Yassine recommends:

  • Engaging in physical activity and exercise
  • Getting enough good quality sleep
  • Drinking less alcohol
  • Staying socially active
  • Controlling chronic medical conditions like obesity and diabetes by being on top of your health
  • Always engaging in some form of education, especially learning new skills

"We're recognizing that there's an interaction between a healthy diet [and] a healthy lifestyle, and we have to look at the big picture," he notes.

"Food and nutrition are very important but within the context of lifestyle and not in isolation."

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