Eating Well in Middle Age Could Help Your Brain Decades Later

Eating Well in Middle Age Could Help Your Brain Decades Later
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Key Takeaways

  • Middle-aged women who started the DASH diet reported better memory and thinking skills decades later

  • Developed to lower blood pressure, the diet emphasizes plant-based foods

  • About 6.5 million Americans over 65 were diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease last year and the number is projected to double by 2060

TUESDAY, Oct. 24, 2023 (HealthDay News) -- Mid-life isn't too late to make a dietary change to preserve brain health.

Women who started following the diet known as DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) to lower their blood pressure were about 17% less likely to report memory loss and other signs of mental decline decades later, a new study reveals.

“Subjective complaints about daily cognitive performance are early predictors of more serious neurocognitive disorders such as Alzheimer’s,” senior author Yu Chen, a professor of population health at NYU Grossman School of Medicine in New York City, said in a university news release.

“With more than 30 years' follow-up, we found that the stronger the adherence to a DASH diet in midlife, the less likely women are to report cognitive issues much later in life,” Chen added.

About 6.5 million Americans over age 65 were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2022, a number that’s expected to double by 2060.

Women comprise about two-thirds of those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, the most widespread form of dementia.

Research has also shown that high blood pressure, particularly in midlife, is a risk factor for cognitive (mental) decline and dementia.

The DASH diet emphasizes plant-based foods that are rich in potassium, calcium and magnesium. It limits saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium and sugar.

To study the impact of eating this way, researchers analyzed data from more than 5,100 women enrolled in the NYU Women’s Health Study. That study examines the impact of lifestyle and other factors on developing cancer and other chronic conditions.

Participants filled out questionnaires between 1985 and 1991, when they were about 49 years old.

The researchers followed them for more than 30 years and then asked them about any cognitive complaints.

The investigators used six standard questions to assess self-reported cognitive health, including whether women had trouble remembering recent events or shopping lists, understanding spoken instructions or group conversation, or navigating familiar streets.

About 33% reported having more than one of the six cognitive complaints. But those who adhered to the DASH diet had 17% lower odds of multiple complaints.

“Our data suggest that it is important to start a healthy diet in midlife to prevent cognitive impairment in older age,” said lead author Yixiao Song, a doctoral candidate at NYU Langone.

Fen Wu, a senior associate research scientist who co-led the study, concluded that “following the DASH diet may not only prevent high blood pressure, but also cognitive issues."

The authors said more research is needed across multiple racial and ethnic groups.

The study findings were published online Oct. 20 in Alzheimer's & Dementia. The study was supported by the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

More information

The U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute has more on the DASH eating plan.

SOURCE: NYU Langone Health/NYU Grossman School of Medicine, news release, Oct. 20, 2023

What This Means For You

Eating more plant-based foods may benefit your brain.

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