MIND Diet Slows Cognitive Decline and Reduces Alzheimer's Risk

Multiple studies have found that the foods we eat significantly affect our risk for cognitive impairment. One diet, in particular, the MIND (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) diet, has demonstrated notable correlations with improved brain health and a reduced risk of Alzheimer's disease and other types of dementia.

Vegetables and legumes arranged together in a circle on a white background
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What Is the MIND Diet?

As the name implies, the MIND diet is derived from the Mediterranean diet and the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet, both of which were intended to target cardiovascular health. It was developed by Martha Clare Morris, Ph.D., ScD, along with her colleagues at Rush University Medical Center.

The MIND diet emphasizes healthy eating habits, with a focus on these 10 healthy categories: nuts, berries, leafy green vegetables, other vegetables, wine, beans, fish, poultry, whole grain, and olive oil.

It also requires you to limit food from the unhealthy categories of fried food, pastries and sweets, butter or margarine, red meat, and cheese.

Research on the MIND Diet, Brain Health, and Alzheimer's Risk

Multiple research studies have looked into whether the MIND diet helps prevent Alzheimer's disease and other kinds of dementia.

MIND Diet Was Correlated With Slower Rate of Cognitive Decline: One study involved 960 older adults in the Rush Memory and Aging Project. Participants followed the MIND diet for almost five years and throughout the study, their cognitive functioning was evaluated annually.

Researchers found that high adherence to the MIND diet was connected to a slowing down of cognitive decline that typically occurs with aging. In fact, they determined the results were equivalent to a person acquiring the brain functioning of someone who was 7 1/2 years younger. Both the overall cognitive scores, as well as the individual subsection scores, were significantly better in these participants. Individual sections included episodic memory, semantic memory, and perceptual speed.

MIND Diet Was Correlated With Reduced Rate of Alzheimer's: Another study was designed by the same researchers who conducted the above study. Their goal was to determine if the MIND diet not only slowed the rate of cognitive decline but also resulted in lower rates of Alzheimer's disease.

In this study, researchers specifically looked at three different diets: the MIND diet, the Mediterranean diet, and the DASH diet. They measured the level of adherence to those diets (that is, how strictly the diets were followed) and then identified which of these participants went on to develop Alzheimer's disease.

The researchers also factored in other characteristics of the participants that have previously been correlated with dementia risk including physical activity, age, sex, level of education, obesity, low body mass index (BMI), and a history of high blood pressure, stroke, or diabetes. This was done to reduce the chance that one of these other factors (rather than diet) was strongly affecting the outcome of the research.

The results of the study showed that high adherence to the MIND diet lowered the risk for Alzheimer's disease by 53 percent when compared to those who didn't follow the diet. But the especially good news about the MIND diet is that even when participants only followed it some of the time (considered by the study's authors as "moderate adherence"), it was still correlated with a 35 percent reduced risk of Alzheimer's disease.

Interestingly, high adherence to the DASH diet and the Mediterranean diet also lowered dementia risk, but moderate compliance with these two diets did not significantly decrease rates of Alzheimer's disease.

Alzheimer's Association International Conference Studies on the MIND Diet: Information presented at the 2017 Alzheimer's Association International Conference included additional research about the MIND diet, as well as other diets that have been connected to better brain health.

In one study, a 30 to 35 percent reduction in the risk of cognitive impairment was found in almost 6,000 older adults who strictly followed both the Mediterranean diet and the MIND diet. Moderately following either the MIND or the Mediterranean diet was associated with an 18 percent reduced risk of cognitive impairment.

Another study called the U.S.-based Women’s Health Initiative Memory Study involved more than 7,000 women with an average age of 71. Their adherence to the MIND diet was measured and then categorized as most adherent (4th quartile) down to the least adherent (1st quartile). Compared to the 1st quartile, the other three quartiles were each correlated with a significantly reduced risk of dementia. This again reinforces the idea that perfect compliance with a healthy diet may not be required to benefit our brains.

A third study presented at the conference found that an unhealthy diet was correlated with smaller brain volume. Brain volume has been previously associated with the health and functioning of the brain. In Alzheimer's disease, brain volume decreases significantly. This study was not specifically about the MIND diet, but rather highlighted the importance of a healthy diet in general for brain health.

Why Does the MIND Diet Promote Brain Health?

Prior research has already found a strong correlation between heart health and brain health. In essence, what's good for the heart is often good for the brain, as well. A healthy heart maintains sufficient blood flow which impacts brain functioning. The MIND diet can be thought of as including the "best" or most effective components of the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diets, both of which initially targeted cardiovascular health.

The MIND diet includes foods that have independently been correlated with healthy brains and a reduced risk of dementia. For example, many studies have already demonstrated the brain benefits of berries. Similarly, multiple researchers have demonstrated that eating nuts may reduce our risk of developing dementia. Adding these foods together, along with others that have been shown by science to benefit our brains, only seems to make sense if your goal is to do what you can to reduce dementia risk and slow cognitive aging.

Diet has been identified in multiple studies as one of several "controllable" risks for dementia. That means that while there are several risks we can't control, such as family history, genetics, and age, our diet is one thing we can control. Doing so has been associated with positive results, for both the body and the brain.

How It's Different From the Mediterranean Diet

The two diets are similar, which is not surprising given that the Mediterranean diet is one of the two diets that were blended to form the MIND diet.

The MIND diet includes only berries as opposed to the broad category of fruit in the Mediterranean diet. The MIND diet also places more emphasis on leafy green vegetables and vegetables in general because research specifically found several benefits associated with these foods. Fish consumption is included in the MIND diet but is less than the suggested amount in the Mediterranean, and potatoes are not included in the MIND diet.

How It's Different From the DASH Diet

The DASH diet is the other diet on which the MIND diet was based. It was specifically designed to target hypertension (high blood pressure). The DASH diet is similar to the Mediterranean diet as it calls for more servings of fruit than does the MIND diet. It also allows more meat and dairy than does the MIND diet. In contrast, the MIND diet recommends eating more nuts than does the DASH diet.

A Word From Verywell

Since we lack an effective treatment for dementia at this time, pursuing ways to reduce our risk has become a focus for many in the healthcare field, even while others continue to push forward in researching new treatments and approaches. Finding cognitive benefits from even less-than-perfect adherence to the MIND diet is an encouraging development in our quest for body and brain health.

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  • Alzheimer's Association International Conference. 2017. Healthy Eating Habits May Preserve Cognitive Function and Reduce the Risk of Dementia.

  • Morris MC, Tangney CC, Wang Y, et al. MIND diet slows cognitive decline with aging. Alzheimer’s & dementia : the journal of the Alzheimer’s Association. 2015;11(9):1015-1022. doi:10.1016/j.jalz.2015.04.011.

  • Morris MC, Tangney CC, Wang Y, Sacks FM, Bennett DA, Aggarwal NT. MIND Diet Associated with Reduced Incidence of Alzheimer’s Disease. Alzheimer’s & dementia : the journal of the Alzheimer’s Association. 2015;11(9):1007-1014. doi:10.1016/j.jalz.2014.11.009.