Heart-Healthy Diets Linked to Better Cognitive Function in Middle Age

Following a nutrient-dense eating plan, such as the Mediterranean diet, in early adulthood may help prevent mental decline decades later.

Mar. 27, 2019
By Mary West

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A new study pub­lished in the online jour­nal Neurology found that con­sum­ing a diet com­prised pri­mar­ily of fruits, veg­eta­bles, fatty fish and nuts is asso­ci­ated with bet­ter cog­ni­tion in mid­dle age.

Individuals who eat a MedDiet have been shown to accu­mu­late less beta-amy­loid, a pro­tein asso­ci­ated with Alzheimer’s dis­ease and demen­tia, com­pared to those eat­ing a typ­i­cal Western Diet.- Brian Bender, cer­ti­fied nutri­tion­ist and bio­med­ical engi­neer

Our find­ings indi­cate that main­tain­ing good dietary prac­tices through­out adult­hood can help to pre­serve brain health at midlife” said study author Claire T McEvoy of Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland.

Participants con­sisted of 2,621 adults with an aver­age age of 25 at the study’s onset. They pro­vided infor­ma­tion about their diet at the begin­ning of the inves­ti­ga­tion, as well as seven and 20 years later. Their cog­ni­tion was tested twice: once at age 50 and again at age 55.

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For each diet, the par­tic­i­pants were assigned to low‑, medium- or high-adher­ence groups, depend­ing on how closely their food intake resem­bled three heart-healthy eat­ing plans. These included the Mediterranean diet (MedDiet), the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet, and the A Priori Diet Quality Score [APDQS] diet:

  • MedDiet foods involve fruits, veg­eta­bles, whole grains, legumes, nuts, fatty fish and olive oil. Red meat and poul­try are lim­ited.
  • The DASH diet con­sists of fruits, veg­eta­bles, grains, legumes, low fat dairy and nuts. It lim­its meat, poul­try, fish, total fat, sat­u­rated fat, sodium and sweets.
  • APDQS foods include fruits, veg­eta­bles, low-fat dairy, fish, legumes and mod­er­ate alco­hol. Salty snacks, sweets, high-fat dairy prod­ucts, fried food and sugar-sweet­ened bev­er­ages are lim­ited.

Results showed an asso­ci­a­tion with preser­va­tion of cog­ni­tion with the MedDiet and the APDQS diet. Participants with high adher­ence to the MedDiet had a 46 per­cent lower like­li­hood of poor think­ing skills than those with low adher­ence.


Those with high adher­ence to the APDQS diet showed a 52 per­cent decreased risk of poor think­ing skills com­pared to those with low adher­ence. Large dif­fer­ences were seen in fruit and veg­etable con­sump­tion between the high- and low-adher­ence groups. The find­ings were adjusted for fac­tors that can influ­ence cog­ni­tion such as smok­ing, level of edu­ca­tion and phys­i­cal activ­ity.

It was not clear why the DASH diet was not tied to a cog­ni­tive advan­tage, but McEvoy spec­u­lated one fac­tor might be alco­hol.

One pos­si­bil­ity is that DASH does not con­sider mod­er­ate alco­hol intake as part of the dietary pat­tern, whereas the other two diets do,” McEvoy said. It’s pos­si­ble that mod­er­ate alco­hol con­sump­tion as part of a healthy diet could be impor­tant for brain health in mid­dle age, but fur­ther research is needed to con­firm these find­ings.”

Additional stud­ies are needed to iden­tify exact com­bi­na­tions of foods and nutri­ents that pro­mote opti­mal cog­ni­tive health through­out life. In the mean­time, McEvoy rec­om­mends fol­low­ing the MedDiet or APDQS diet to pro­tect against men­tal decline.

While we don’t yet know the ideal dietary pat­tern for brain health, chang­ing to a heart-healthy diet could be a rel­a­tively easy and effec­tive way to reduce the risk for devel­op­ing prob­lems with think­ing and mem­ory as we age,” she said.

Brian Bender, a cer­ti­fied nutri­tion­ist, bio­med­ical engi­neer and a cofounder of Intake, told Olive Oil Times how heart-healthy diets, such as the MedDiet, may pro­tect against men­tal decline.

Individuals who eat a MedDiet have been shown to accu­mu­late less beta-amy­loid, a pro­tein asso­ci­ated with Alzheimer’s dis­ease and demen­tia, com­pared to those eat­ing a typ­i­cal Western Diet,” he said. One the­ory for how a MedDiet may do this relates to a pro­tein called ApoE, which typ­i­cally binds to beta-amy­loid and shut­tles it out of the brain.”

However, indi­vid­u­als who eat a Western Diet pro­duce less ApoE com­pared to those on a MedDiet,” he added. Thus, the high intake of fruits, veg­eta­bles and legumes, along with healthy fat from olive oil, nuts and oily fish appear to help the brain ward off beta-amy­loid buildup that is asso­ci­ated with cog­ni­tive decline.”


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