When I was growing up, I heard so many tragic stories of people dying from cancer that I dubbed it “the C word” (as in “please don’t tell me they have been diagnosed with the C word”). Now as I enter my sixth decade, I have become acutely aware of “the D word”, as in Dementia. And just in time, since the risk doubles every five years between ages 65 – 95.

But just like many cancers, can dementia be prevented? Yes, with the right diet. Research has shown that the Mediterranean diet may be helpful in preventing cognitive issues later in life. A 2013 study published in the journal Neurology reported that those who followed the diet closely were 19 percent less likely to encounter issues with thinking and memory skills.

And a new randomized, controlled study published in The Lancet makes the link between nutrition, lifestyle, and cognitive decline even clearer. Finnish researchers put half of 1260 study participants —  ages 60 to 77 and exhibiting risk factors for developing dementia — on a regimen of cognitive exercises, physical exercise plus a healthy diet.

For the diet, the researchers followed this in terms of everyday goals:

  • 10–20% calories from protein sources
  • 25–35% calories from fat (less than 10% saturated)
  • 45–55% daily energy from carbohydrates (less than 10% refined sugar)
  • 25–35 grams of dietary fiber
  • Less than 5 grams per day of salt
  • Less than 5% of total calories from alcohol

Two years later, the researchers tested participants’ brain power using the Neuropsychological Test Battery, where higher scores generally equate to better cognitive functioning.

Overall test scores were an impressive 25% higher in the intervention group when compared to the control group. Even better still, scores for executive functioning (the ability to mentally organize thoughts) were 83% higher as compared to the control.

Better yet: processing speed (the rate at which a human can take in a bit of new information, reach some judgment on it and then formulate a response) was an impressive 150% better in the set who participated in the regimen.

The Finnish researchers now plan to follow the study participants for another seven years to see whether or not the interventions have long-term impacts, like fewer dementia and Alzheimer’s diagnoses.

“Focusing on nutrition really can help long-term cognition” says Lisa Moskovitz, MS, RD, founder of New York Nutrition Group. “Cognitive decline is a serious issue that affects a large percentage of the elderly population, but fortunately, there is more and more evidence finding effective strategies for prevention—especially proper nutrition. Healthy foods such as blueberries, fatty fish like salmon, nuts and seeds, whole grains, dark cocoa, and tea are all commonly referred to as ‘brain foods’ for their antioxidants and healthy fats like omega-3s.”

What’s the key to their effectiveness? All these foods prevent inflammation, which is the underlying cause of decay in the brain. “Foods rich in antioxidants and healthy fats fight damaging oxidative stress, and promote healthy blood flow to the brain,” says Moskovitz. “Incorporate plant-based foods and healthy fats into your diet throughout the day to protect your brain and keep it healthy for as long as possible,” she says.

As with so many long-term health factors, one key to clear thinking seems to be a healthy, balanced diet rich in key nutrients. So now that summer’s bounty is on the way, make vegetables the centerpiece of your diet and take good care of your brain. And it will take good care of you.

By Sally Anderson