Diets designed to boost brain health, targeted largely at older adults, are a new, noteworthy development in the field of nutrition.
The latest version is the Canadian Brain Health Food Guide, created by scientists in Toronto.
Another, the MIND diet, comes from experts at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Both diets draw from a growing body of research suggesting that certain nutrients — mostly found in plant-based foods, whole grains, beans, nuts, vegetable oils and fish — help protect cells in the brain while fighting harmful inflammation and oxidation.
Both have yielded preliminary, promising results in observational studies. The Canadian version — similar to the Mediterranean diet but adapted to Western eating habits — is associated with a 36 percent reduction in the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. The MIND diet — a hybrid of the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) — lowered the risk of Alzheimer’s by 53 percent.
Researchers responsible for both regimens will study them further in rigorous clinical trials being launched this year.
Still, the diets differ in several respects, reflecting varying interpretations of research regarding nutrition’s impact on the aging brain.
A few examples: The MIND diet recommends two servings of vegetables every day; the Canadian diet recommends five. The Canadian diet suggests that fish or seafood be eaten three times a week; the MIND diet says once is enough.
The MIND diet calls for at least three servings of whole grains a day; the Canadian diet doesn’t make a specific recommendation. The Canadian diet calls for four servings of fruit each day; the MIND diet says that five half-cup portions of berries a week is all that is needed.
We asked Carol Greenwood, a professor of nutrition at the University of Toronto and a key force behind the Canadian diet, and Martha Clare Morris, a nutritional epidemiologist at Rush University Medical Center and originator of the MIND diet, to elaborate on research findings about nutrition and aging and their implications for older adults.
Nutrition and the brain
It’s not yet well understood precisely how nutrition affects the brains of older adults. Most studies done to date have been in animals or younger adults.
What is clear: A poor diet can increase the risk of developing hypertension, cardiovascular disease, obesity and diabetes, which in turn can end up compromising an individual’s cognitive function. The corollary: A good diet that reduces the risk of chronic illness is beneficial to the brain.
Also, what people eat appears to have an effect on brain cells and how they function.
“I don’t think we know enough yet to say that nutrients in themselves support neurogenesis (the growth of neurons) and synaptogenesis (the growth of neural connections),” Greenwood said. “But pathways that are needed for these processes can be supported or impaired by someone’s nutritional status.”
“Several nutrients have been shown to have biological mechanisms related to neuropathology in the brain,” Morris said.