Healthy Diet Supports to Prevent Cognitive Decline in Old Age


A healthy diet has been linked to a reduced risk of many health conditions, including heart disease and certain cancers. New research adds to the evidence that a varied, plant-rich diet may decrease the risk of cognitive decline and dementia later in life. The findings indicate that an unhealthy diet is strongly associated with lower cognitive abilities, while a high-quality diet during youth and middle age helps maintain brain health as you age. Adopting healthy eating habits at any age will improve your chances of staying mentally sharp as you grow older.

There’s plenty of evidence that a diet rich in plants and low in salt, saturated fats, and processed foods benefits overall health. Healthful diets can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer. Several studies have shown that eating a healthy diet in older age can help reduce the risk of cognitive decline and dementia.

Now, research presented at NUTRITION 2024, the annual meeting of the American Society for Nutrition, has provided further evidence that healthy eating throughout life is key to maintaining cognitive function as we age. The study suggests that the earlier people adopt healthy eating patterns, the more likely they are to stay mentally sharp into old age.

Kelsey Costa, a registered dietitian and science communications officer at Examine, offered insights: “This study adds to the growing body of evidence that suggests a strong link between diet and cognitive health, highlighting the importance of dietary choices in maintaining brain function as we age. The main novelty of the study is that it tracked cognition along with self-reported diet across the lifespan, which is one of the major contributions of the research.”

The study collected data from 3,059 people over seven decades. All participants were born in March 1946 and enrolled as children in the Medical Research Council’s National Survey of Health and Development in the United Kingdom. Over more than 75 years, the participants completed questionnaires and tests on diet, cognition, general health, and other factors.

For this study, researchers assessed participants’ dietary intakes at five time points between the ages of 4 and 63, using recall and food diaries. They also measured their cognitive ability at seven time points between ages 8 and 69. They used group-based trajectory modeling to investigate the relationship between diet and cognition.

The researchers used the 2020 Healthy Eating Index (HEI) from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Health and Nutrition Service to assess the quality of the participants’ diets. In this index, higher intakes of foods such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, protein, dairy, and seafood increase scores, while higher intakes of refined grains, sugar, sodium, and saturated fats reduce scores.

Participants who retained high cognitive abilities into older age tended to eat more of the index’s high-scoring foods, such as vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains, and fewer added sugars, refined grains, and sodium—the foods that decreased HEI scores.

According to the study abstract, 47% of participants with the lowest-quality diets were in the lowest cognitive trajectory, and only 7% were in the highest cognitive trajectory. Conversely, 48% of those with the highest-quality diets were in the highest cognitive trajectory (8% in the lowest cognitive trajectory).

Although all participants tended to adopt a healthier diet in adulthood, differences in diet quality in childhood influenced later life dietary patterns. Lead researcher Kelly Cara, PhD, of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, noted, “This suggests that early life dietary intakes may influence our dietary decisions later in life, and the cumulative effects of diet over time are linked with the progression of our global cognitive abilities,” she said in a press release.

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