Can Diet Prevent Alzheimer’s

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Diet and Alzheimer's

Preserving Your Memories In Your Golden Years

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

can diet prevent alzheimer'sAlzheimer’s is a scary disease. There is so much to look forward to in our golden years. We want to enjoy the fruits of our years of hard work. We want to enjoy our grandkids and perhaps even our great-grandkids. More importantly, we want to be able to pass on our accumulated experiences and wisdom to future generations.

Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia have the potential to rob us of everything that makes life worth living. What is the use of having a healthy body, family, and fortune if we can’t even recognize the people around us?

That is why anything that might reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s is BIG news, which brings me to the recent buzz about the MIND diet.  Can diet prevent Alzheimer’s.

 

What Is The MIND Diet?

the mind dietThe MIND diet is the brainchild of Dr. Martha Clare Morris, a nutritional epidemiologist at Rush University Medical Center. She started with the Mediterranean and DASH diets, which I have described in a previous issue of “Health Tips From the Professor,” because both of those diets have been shown to reduce the risk of dementia. Then she researched the literature for studies linking specific foods and nutrients to improving cognition and/or preventing dementia.

In short, she combined the brain-healthy features of the Mediterranean and DASH diets and further modified them based on the best scientific data available. She emphasized some components of those two diets and minimized others. She also modified the number of servings of some foods, based on the best available evidence.

She acknowledged that when she eliminated or reduced foods that were parts of those two diets, it did not mean those foods might not play an important role in preserving cognitive function as we age. It simply meant we don’t currently have strong evidence to prove their beneficial effects in preserving cognition.

The MIND diet is a whole food, plant-based, diet.

 

  • It includes 10 “brain-healthy” food groups: green leafy vegetables, other vegetables, nuts, berries, beans, whole grains, fish, poultry, olive oil, and wine (in moderation, too much alcohol kills brain cells).
  • It limits red & processed meats, butter and margarine, cheese, pastries & sweets, and fried & fast foods.
  • It neither recommends nor discourages low fat dairy foods and fruit other than berries. Dr. Morris notes that while those are healthy foods, they have no proven benefit for preventing cognitive decline.

 

Can Diet Prevent Alzheimer’s?

 

As you can tell, a lot of thought went into the design of the MIND diet, but does it work? Dr. Morris partnered with 5 of her colleagues at Rush University Medical Center to test the hypothesis (Morris et al., Alzheimer’s & Dementia 11: 1007-1014, 2015). They enrolled 923 participants, ages 59 to 98 years (average age = 81) from retirement communities and senior public housing units in the Chicago area. All participants were free of Alzheimer’s disease when the study began.

doctor's studyAt the beginning of the study each participant filled out a detailed food frequency questionnaire. Participants were given an extensive physical and neurological exam designed to diagnose the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and/or dementia on an annual basis. Participants were followed for an average of 4.5 years, during which time 144 of the participants developed Alzheimer’s and another 14 developed non-Alzheimer’s dementia.

At the end of the study the food frequency data were analyzed to determine how closely participants adhered to the MIND diet, the Mediterranean diet, and the DASH diet.  Adherence to each of these diets was then correlated with the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. [To be perfectly clear, none of the participants were given any dietary instruction. Nor were they advised to change their diet. This study simply looked at the diets they were already eating and determined how closely their diet matched the standards set for MIND, Mediterranean, and DASH diets.] The results were striking:

  1. Strict adherence to all 3 diets significantly decreased the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. The decreased risk was:
    • 53% for the MIND diet.
    • 54% for the Mediterranean diet.
    • 39% for the DASH diet.
  2. When the investigators looked at moderate adherence to each of the diets, the MIND diet performed slightly better than the other two diets:
    • Moderate adherence to the MIND diet decreased Alzheimer’s risk by 35%.
    • Moderate adherence to the Mediterranean and DASH diets had no significant effect on Alzheimer’s risk.

What Does This Study Mean For You?

Dr. Morris concluded that healthy diets, such as the Mediterranean and DASH diets, provide substantial protection against dementia. She stated that as new studies come along, these diets can be modified to provide even better protection. She considers the MIND diet is the first step in that process.

alzheimer's riskA 53% decrease in Alzheimer’s risk is impressive. However, if you are really concerned about dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, you should think of diet as only one component of a holistic approach. As I described in a recent article How to Prevent Memory Loss, a holistic approach to preserving your cognitive function includes:

  • A healthy diet
  • B vitamins & omega-3s
  • Weight control
  • Exercise
  • Adequate sleep
  • Socialization
  • Memory training (mental exercise)

The Bottom Line

 

  1. The Mediterranean and DASH diets have already been shown to preserve mental function as we age, thus reducing the risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s.
  2. Martha Morris at Rush University Medical Center used the latest studies on specific foods and nutrients that preserve mental function to modify those diets into something she calls the MIND diet.
  3. Morris and colleagues at Rush then evaluated the effectiveness of all 3 diets on reducing Alzheimer’s risk. Strict adherence to all 3 diets significantly decreased the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. The decreased risk was:
    • 53% for the MIND diet.
    • 54% for the Mediterranean diet.
    • 39% for the DASH diet.
  4. When the investigators looked at moderate adherence to each of the diets, the MIND diet performed slightly better than the other two diets:
    • Moderate adherence to the MIND diet decreased Alzheimer’s risk by 35%.
    • Moderate adherence to the Mediterranean and DASH diets had no significant effect on Alzheimer’s risk.
  5. Morris concluded that healthy diets, such as the Mediterranean and DASH diets, provide substantial protection against dementia. However, she feels that as new studies come along, these diets can be modified to provide even better protection. She considers the MIND diet as the first step in that process.
  6. Healthy diet is only one component of a holistic approach for preserving mental function. Other components include:
    • B vitamins & omega-3s
    • Weight control
    • Exercise
    • Adequate sleep
    • Socialization
    • Memory training (mental exercise)

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Comments (2)

  • Barbara Wagner

    |

    I have a Shaklee distributor and have received your newsletter for years. I was at the recent Science Symposium in Portsmouth, NH.

    Re the Mind diet, I included an excerpt from your newsletter below. How do you reconcile a’ whole foods plant based diet’ and then include fish, poultry, meat and dairy as you’ve done below. I have found the research/writing done by T. Colin Campbell to be the most convincing case for a healthy diet (including for the brain). He recommends a whole foods plant based diet without animal products. Michael Greger, MD, and his book ‘How Not to Die’ also recommends a whole food plant based diet without animal products.

    ‘The MIND diet is a whole food, plant based, diet.

    • It includes 10 “brain-healthy” food groups: green leafy vegetables, other vegetables, nuts, berries, beans, whole grains, fish, poultry, olive oil, and wine (in moderation, too much alcohol kills brain cells).

    • It limits red & processed meats, butter and margarine, cheese, pastries & sweets, and fried & fast foods.

    • It neither recommends or discourages low fat dairy foods and fruit other than berries. Dr. Morris notes that while those

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      Dear Barbara,

      As Joe Friday used to say in the TV show “Dragnet”: “Just the facts, mam.” I am a big fan of a Vegan diet and the writings of T. Colin Campbell. However, the data are very clear that a plant based diet with some healthy animal proteins, such as the Mediterranean diet, also dramatically decreases the risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and dementia. The MIND and DASH diets are very closely related to the Mediterranean diet. I consider all of them healthy diets. Whether you want to go Vegan, Mediterranean, MIND or DASH is a matter of personal preference.

      Dr. Chaney

      Reply

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Latest Article

Can Plant-based Diets Be Unhealthy?

Posted September 10, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

plant-based diets vegetablesPlant-based diets have become the “Golden Boys” of the diet world. They are the diets most often recommended by knowledgeable health and nutrition professionals. I’m not talking about all the “Dr. Strangeloves” who pitch weird diets in books and the internet. I am talking legitimate experts who have spent their life studying the impact of nutrition on our health.

Certainly, there is an overwhelming body of evidence supporting the claim that plant-based diets are healthy. Going on a plant-based diet can help you lower blood pressure, inflammation, cholesterol and triglycerides. People who consume a plant-based diet for a lifetime weigh less and have decreased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

But, can a plant-based diet be unhealthy? Some people consider a plant-based diet to simply be the absence of meat and other animal foods. Is just replacing animal foods with plant-based foods enough to make a diet healthy?

Maybe not. After all, sugar and white flour are plant-based food ingredients. Fake meats of all kinds abound in our grocery stores. Some are very wholesome, but others are little more than vegetarian junk food. If you replace animal foods with plant-based sweets, desserts, and junk food, is your diet really healthier?

While the answer to that question seems obvious, very few studies have asked that question. Most studies on the benefits of plant-based diets have compared population groups that eat a strictly plant-based diet (Seventh-Day Adventists, vegans, or vegetarians) with the general public. They have not looked at variations in plant food consumption within the general public. Nor have they compared people who consume healthy and unhealthy plant foods.

This study (H Kim et al, Journal of the American Heart Association, 8:e012865, 2019) was designed to fill that void.

 

How Was The Study Done?

plant-based diets studyThis study used data collected from 12,168 middle aged adults in the ARIC (Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities) study between 1987 and 2016.

The participant’s usual intake of foods and beverages was assessed by trained interviewers using a food frequency questionnaire at the time of entry into the study and again 6 years later.

Participants were asked to indicate the frequency with which they consumed 66 foods and beverages of a defined serving size in the previous year. Visual guides were provided to help participants estimate portion sizes.

The participant’s adherence to a plant-based diet was assessed using four different well-established plant-based diet scores. For the sake of simplicity, I will include 3 of them in this review.

  • The PDI (Plant-Based Diet Index) categorizes foods as either plant foods or animal foods. A high PDI score means that the participant’s diet contains more plant foods than animal foods. A low PDI score means the participant’s diet contains more animal foods than plant foods.
  • The hPDI (healthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “healthy” plant foods. A high hPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) and low in animal foods.
  • The uPDI (unhealthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “unhealthy” plant foods. A high uPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) and low in animal foods.

For statistical analysis the scores from the various plant-based diet indices were divided into 5 equal groups. In each case, the group with the highest score consumed the most plant foods and least animal foods. The group with the lowest score consumed the least plant foods and the most animal foods.

The health outcomes measured in this study were heart disease events, heart disease deaths, and all-cause deaths. Again, for the sake of simplicity, I will only include 2 of these outcomes (heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths) in this review. The data on deaths were obtained from state death records and the National Death Index. (Yes, your personal information is available on the web even after you die.)

 

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

plant-based diets reduce heart deathsThe participants in this study were followed for an average of 25 years.

The investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years and compared people with the highest intake of plant foods to people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods. The results were:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

What Else Did The Study Show?

The investigators made a couple of other interesting observations:

  • The association of the overall diet with heart disease and all-cause deaths was stronger than the association of individual food components. This underscores the importance of looking at the effect of the whole diet on health outcomes rather than the “magic” foods you hear about on Dr. Strangelove’s Health Blog.
  • Diets with the highest amount of healthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of carbohydrates, plant protein, fiber, and micronutrients, including potassium, magnesium, iron, vitamin A, vitamin C, folate, and lower intake of saturated fat and cholesterol.
  • Diets with the highest amount of unhealthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of calories and carbohydrates and lower intake of fiber and micronutrients.

The last two observations may help explain some of the health benefits of plant-based diets.

 

Can Plant-Based Diets Be Unhealthy?

plant-based diets unhealthy cookiesNow, let’s return to the question I asked at the beginning of this article: “Can plant-based diets be unhealthy?” Although some previous studies have suggested that unhealthy plant-based diets might increase the risk of heart disease, this study did not show that.

What this study did show was that an unhealthy plant-based diet was no better for you than a diet containing lots of red meat and other animal foods.

If this were the only conclusion from this study, it might be considered a neutral result. However, this result clearly contrasts with the data from this study and many others showing that both plant-based diets in general and healthy plant-based diets reduce the risk of heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths compared to animal-based diets.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

There is one other subtle message from this study. This study did not compare vegans with the general public. Everyone in the study was the general public. Nobody in the study was consuming a 100% plant-based diet.

For example:

  • The group with the highest intake of plant foods consumed 9 servings per day of plant foods and 3.6 servings per day of animal foods.
  • The group with the lowest intake of plant foods consumed 5.4 servings per day of plant foods and 5.6 servings per day of animal foods.

In other words, you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet.

 

The Bottom Line

A recent study analyzed the effect of consuming plant foods on heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths over a 25-year period.

When the investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

A more subtle message from the study is that you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet. The people in this study were not following some special diet. The only difference was that some of the people in this study ate more plant foods and others more animal foods.

For more details on the study, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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