Have you ever walked into a room and forgotten why you had gone there? Or forget where you’ve parked? Don’t worry; this happens to all of us and is common with aging, but the good news is we can decrease the risk of mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and dementia through diet and nutrition.
Let’s start with the basics. What’s the difference between mild cognitive impairment and dementia? According to the Mayo Clinic, MCI is “the stage between the expected decline in memory and thinking that happens with age and the more serious decline of dementia.” The term dementia is “used to describe a group of symptoms affecting memory, thinking, and social abilities. In people who have dementia, the symptoms interfere with daily lives.” There are different types of dementias, including Vascular, Frontotemporal, Lewy Body, and the most common, Alzheimer’s.
Health & Lifestyle
Many factors —aging, genetics, environment, etc.—can lead to MCI or dementia. However, health and lifestyle conditions are the most controllable of the causes of cognitive decline. Of these conditions, cardiovascular health, weight management, and blood glucose control are the key areas of focus. Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the leading cause of death in women. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2021, one in every five female deaths was from CVD. Removing CVD and its risk factors (smoking, excessive alcohol intake, lack of exercise) would decrease dementia cases by 1-2% globally. Weight management is also important in maintaining cognitive function. A long-term study (2002-2017) in the International Journal of Epidemiology found that participants who were obese at the start of the study were more likely to develop dementia than participants with a weight in a healthy range. For those with Prediabetes or Type-2 Diabetes, good blood glucose control is vital. New research suggests that there is a connection between increased insulin resistance and dementia. All three of these issues are controllable through dietary changes and healthy lifestyle choices, including exercise, stress management, smoking cessation, and moderation of alcohol intake.
Research studies have shown the positive effects of many nutrients, including B vitamins, healthy fats, antioxidants, and probiotics, on delaying cognitive impairment and dementias.
B Vitamins: B6, B12, and folate are essential as they convert homocysteine, a common by-product of amino acid breakdown, into substances necessary for neurotransmitter production. Sources of B vitamins include meat, poultry, fish, dairy products, dark leafy greens, citrus fruits, legumes, grains, and nuts.
Omega 3s: These fatty acids may lower the risk of cognitive decline. A 2022 meta-analysis of over 100,000 participants showed a reduction in overall risk by 20%. However, new studies are emerging that omega 3s may not have direct preventative benefits on the brain itself. Researchers now believe that their anti-inflammatory benefits on cardiovascular health indirectly benefit brain health. Sources of omega-3s and other healthy fats are nuts, seeds, fatty fish (salmon, tuna, sardines), avocados, eggs, and plant oils. Other healthy fats include plant-derived unsaturated fats that are liquid at room temperature.
Antioxidants: Studies have shown the benefits of antioxidants in protecting the aging brain. Antioxidants protect the body from free radicals—unstable environmental compounds that destroy cells. Antioxidants come from fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and many other foods.
Probiotics: You know when you get a gut feeling? This happens because of how the gut and brain are connected. Research has shown that probiotics have neuroprotective properties because they feed healthy gut bacteria, which produces over 30 neurotransmitters! Sources of probiotics are fermentable foods, including yogurt, soy, tempeh, sauerkraut, kombucha, lacto-fermented vegetables (ex: pickles), sourdough bread, and kimchi.
So it all comes down to diet! The MIND diet is the primary recommendation for slowing the development of MCI and dementia. MIND stands for Mediterranean Dash Diet Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay. It combines elements of the well-known Mediterranean diet and the DASH (Dietary Approach To Stop Hypertension) diet.
The MIND Guidelines
Foods to include in your diet
- Green leafy vegetables (7/wk)
- Other vegetables (7/wk)
- Nuts (5oz/wk)
- Berries (5/wk)
- Beans (3/wk)
- Whole grains (21/wk)
- Fish (1+/wk)
- Poultry (2/wk)
- Olive Oil (mainly added if fat is used)
Emphasis on green leafy vegetables and berries, the only fruit category proven effective on cognitive function.
Foods to limit in your diet
- Pastries and sweets (≤ 4/wk)
- Red meat (< 4/wk)
- Fried foods (≤ 1/wk)
- Alcohol/wine (5 fl oz/d)
- Regular cheese (≤ 2 oz/wk)
Research has shown that the MIND diet can delay cognitive decline by seven years. However, a Harvard and Rush University trial has also found that participants on the MIND diet and participants in the healthy eating control group BOTH had improved cognition and weight loss. This shows you don’t need to strictly eat the MIND diet to have beneficial results, but these foods have protective factors. Looking at dietary patterns rather than individual nutrients is more valuable.
Give it a try!
Below are some recipes featuring neuroprotective ingredients in the MIND Diet, such as vegetables, dark leafy greens, fatty fish, legumes, pumpkin, nuts, and olive oil.
Guest author Christa Vasile, Dietetic intern, is a graduate student in Pace University’s Nutrition and Dietetics Coordinated Masters Program.
Egg Breakfast Muffins
- 1 red bell pepper diced
- 3 scallions diced
- 4 cherry tomatoes sliced
- 6 eggs beaten
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 cup spinach chopped
- 4 tbs feta cheese
- 4 tbs basil chopped
Preheat the oven to 350° F
Wash and dice the peppers, scallions, and tomatoes and put them in a large mixing bowl.
Chop spinach and basil.
Beat eggs in seperate bowl.
Grease muffin tin. You can also grease muffin liners to make clean up easy.
Place beaten eggs in a bowl with vegetables and herb and mix well.
Pour egg mixture into muffin pans or cups.
Bake for about 15 minutes until set.
Option: You could also increase the number of servings to 4 and grease an 8x8 glass baking dish. Bake mixture for about 20 minutes. Cut into squares and serve.
Chickpea Artichoke Salad
- 1 15 oz can chickpeas drained
- 1/4 small red onion diced
- 10 cherry tomatoes quartered
- 1 14 oz can artichoke hearts quartered
- 1/2 cup Kalamata olives pitted and halved
- 1 small red pepper diced
- 2 tbsp parsley minced
- 2 tbsp capers
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 tbsp red wine vinegar
- sea salt to taste
- pepper to taste
Discard the skins on the chickpeas by rubbing them gently between your hands if desired.
Place the chickpeas in a medium size mixing bowl and add the remainder of the ingredients and mix well.
Adjust seasonings to taste.
Total time will be shorter if skin is not removed from chickpeas.
Miso Glazed Salmon & White Bean Kale Saute
- 1 1/2 tbs white miso paste
- 1 1/2 tbs mirin (sweet rice wine)
- 1 1/2 tbs rice vinegar
- 1 1/2 tbs soy sauce
- 1 tsp ginger peeled and grated
- 3 6 oz salmon fillets skinless
- 1 1/2 tsp sesame seeds toasted
- 1 tbs olive oil
- 6 cups kale spines removed and chopped
- 1/2 cup white beans canned, drained and rinsed
- 2 tbs pine nuts
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1 1/2 tsp maple syrup
Miso Glazed Salmon
Place fillets skin side down on a parchment-line baking pan.
In a small bowl, whisk together miso, mirin, rice vinegar, soy sauce, maple syrup, and ginger. Brush evenly over fish.
Broil for about 8-10 minutes until fish is cooked through. Remove from oven and sprinkle with sesame seeds.
White Bean and Kale Saute
Remove spines from kale and chop.
Drain and rinse cannellini beans.
Saute olive oil in a large saute pan over medium heat.
Add kale and saute until wilted and tender.
Add cannellini beans and pine nuts, and cook until beans are warmed.
Season with salt and pepper.
Pumpkin Spice Freezer Fudge
- 1 cup drippy natural almond butter
- 1/2 cup organic pumpkin puree
- 1/4 cup coconut oil room temperature NOT melted
- 1 tsp pumpkin spice
- 1/4 cup maple syrup
- 1/4 cup melted dark chocolate optional
In a large bowl mix together coconut oil and maple syrup until coconut oil blends into maple syrup.
Add in pumpkin puree, spice and almond butter.
Lay parchment in a 9x9 pan and pour mixture into pan. Spread evenly.
Freeze for at least one hour and then cut into 16 squares.
Drizzle with chocolate if desired.
Store in freezer. These must be eaten straight from the freezer. They will begin to melt if left at room temperature.
- Brain, J., Tully, P. J., Turnbull, D., Tang, E., Greene, L., Beach, S., Siervo, M., & Stephan, B. C. M. (2022). Risk factors for dementia in the context of cardiovascular disease: A protocol of an overview of reviews. PloS one, 17(7), e0271611. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0271611
- Ma, Y., Ajnakina, O., Steptoe, A., & Cadar, D. (2020). Higher risk of dementia in English older individuals who are overweight or obese. International journal of epidemiology, 49(4), 1353–1365. https://doi.org/10.1093/ije/dyaa099
- Wei, B. Z., Li, L., Dong, C. W., Tan, C. C., Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative, & Xu, W. (2023). The Relationship of Omega-3 Fatty Acids with Dementia and Cognitive Decline: Evidence from Prospective Cohort Studies of Supplementation, Dietary Intake, and Blood Markers. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 117(6), 1096–1109. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ajcnut.2023.04.001
- August 2023. Dementia. Mayo Clinic. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/dementia/symptoms-causes/syc-20352013
- May 2023. Women and Heart Disease. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/women.htm#:~:text=Heart%20disease%20is%20the%20leading,in%20every%205%20female%20deaths.&text=Research%20has%20shown%20that%20only,is%20their%20number%201%20killer.
- January 2023. Mild cognitive impairment (MCI). Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/mild-cognitive-impairment/symptoms-causes/syc-20354578