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Socrates A. Garrigos, MD, PA

Eat This Not That: Dementia Prevention Edition

Mar 22, 2024
Eat This Not That: Dementia Prevention Edition
Your eating patterns have the power to protect your health or undermine it — either setting the stage for chronic illness or helping you prevent it. Here’s how your diet can influence your brain health and dementia risk.

About 55 million people worldwide have dementia, with Alzheimer’s disease accounting for as many as four in five (up to 80%) cases. Since dementia can’t be cured or reversed, experts focus on finding ways to reduce its risk of occurrence or, when it does occur, delay the onset of symptoms and slow disease progression. 

As expected, healthy lifestyle habits are an area of investigation. Currently, there’s strong evidence you can support better brain health and reduce your risk of dementia by:  

  • Staying physically active
  • Controlling your weight
  • Abstaining from smoking
  • Managing vascular health 
  • Staying socially involved
  • Limiting your alcohol use
  • Preventing head injuries

Along with these strategies, experts study which dietary approaches offer protective effects against dementia occurrence and progression. 

As a board-certified internist specializing in preventive medicine and dementia care, Dr. Garrigos and our team at Socrates A. Garrigos, MD, PA, know that just as the wrong dietary choices can undermine brain health, the right ones can strengthen it. 

Dementia brain changes and cognitive decline 

Dementia is an umbrella term that covers various chronic neurological disorders, most of which cause a progressive decline in cognitive function — or the brain’s ability to process thought. Dementia can impair or diminish:

  • Memory encoding and recall
  • Learning and comprehension
  • Reasoning and judgment
  • Problem-solving and focus
  • Language and communication

 Abnormal brain changes and resulting cognitive decline associated with dementia are severe enough to impair daily life and undermine independent function. Dementia-related brain changes also affect behavior, emotions, and relationships.

Dietary patterns may lower dementia risk

While advancing age is a known risk factor for dementia — most people who develop it are 65 or older — severe cognitive decline isn’t part of normal aging. Researchers are trying to pinpoint why some people develop this progressive brain disorder while others don’t.

Experts do know that even though there’s no foolproof way to prevent dementia, healthy lifestyle choices may reduce your risk of developing it. With dieting, two strategies provide significant protective benefits:

Mediterranean diet 

The Mediterranean diet emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, fatty fish such as salmon, and plant-based unsaturated fats like olive oils. This heart-healthy eating pattern also limits red meat, sweets, and highly processed foods.

Since the 1960s, studies show that the Mediterranean diet may lower the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. While controlling these vascular risks supports brain health and helps reduce your risk of dementia, researchers continue studying how this eating pattern might directly affect dementia risk. 

Although studies have had inconsistent results, a recent large study suggests that sticking with the Mediterranean diet can reduce dementia risk by up to 23%.     

The MIND diet 

The MIND diet is an acronym for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay. This eating pattern combines the Mediterranean diet with the DASH diet, which stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension.   

The DASH plan limits sodium and emphasizes whole foods rich in calcium, potassium, magnesium, dietary fiber, and protein — or essential nutrients that effectively benefit blood pressure, heart health, and brain function.  

The DASH diet also limits red meat, fried and highly processed foods, sweets, and high-fat dairy. Instead, it’s centered on: 

  • Vegetables, fruits, and whole grains
  • Beans, peas, and lentils; nuts and seeds
  • Fatty and lean fish, seafood, lean poultry 
  • Soy foods (tofu), eggs, egg substitute 
  • Heart-healthy fats (olive oil, avocado) 
  • Limited dairy (low- or fat-free products)

Although research is ongoing, current studies indicate that aging adults who closely follow the MIND diet approach experience a significantly slower rate of cognitive decline than older people who don’t adhere to the MIND diet principles.

Dietary choices likely to increase dementia risk

As you might expect, the very same foods that are limited or eliminated by the MIND diet and the Mediterranean diet — which happen to be the main foods in the average Western diet — are associated with an increased risk of brain impairment and dementia, mainly through their effects on cardiovascular health. 

Brain-supporting dietary patterns encourage cutting back on foods and harmful nutrients that can elevate your blood pressure and damage your cardiovascular health, including sodium, saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, and added sugars, which means limiting or avoiding:

  • Fast food meals and deep-fried foods 
  • Most processed snack foods (chips)
  • Fatty meats (red meat and pork)
  • Full-fat dairy (whole milk and cream)
  • Tropical oils (coconut and palm oils)
  • Sugary beverages (soda, sports drinks)
  • Sugary foods (baked goods, desserts)

Supporting better brain health and reduced dementia risk doesn’t require eliminating any of these foods, drinks, and nutrients — it just means taking gradual steps toward healthier choices each day.    

Would you like to learn other ways to keep your aging brain healthy? Call us today, or use our online booking feature to schedule an appointment at Socrates A. Garrigos, MD, PA, in McAllen, Texas, anytime.