In recent years, the impact of nutrition on brain health has been one of active and ongoing research and development. From brain development, cognition, aging and disease states, the foods and eating patterns of individuals play an important role in the vital actions of development, growth, maturation and protection of the brain. The effects of a suboptimal diet on sleep and overall energy levels can indirectly impact the daily function of the brain. So, it makes sense that the health of your brain is frequently on your mind.
However, few aspects of aging evoke more fear in people than the prospect of memory loss. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 5.7 million Americans are dealing with Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, and it’s the sixth leading cause of death for all adults.¹ In 2010, the cost associated with dementia in the United States was estimated to be between $159 and $215 billion.² What you eat can help manage oxidative stress and inflammation, which are thought to be contributing factors of Alzheimer’s disease.³
The Role of Nutrition and Lifestyle in Age-Related Cognitive Decline
A typical Western diet is high in red meat, saturated fat and sugar, and low in fruits, vegetables and fiber. This eating pattern can be inflammatory and low in protective, anti-oxidative nutrients such as vitamin C, E and selenium.4,5 Whereas, the additional fiber and heart healthy unsaturated fats in the Mediterranean style diet are linked to less oxidative stress and beneficial, anti-inflammatory changes in the gut microbiome.6
The National Academy of Science recently reviewed the research on guidelines to prevent or delay the onset of Alzheimer’s dementia and age-related cognitive decline. Surprising evidence shows that brain changes leading to these declines could be in the works within the body for years in advance. This lends credence to examining dietary patterns, such as the Mediterranean diet or the MIND diet (Mediterranean-DASH [Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension] Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay), rather than single foods for their usefulness in prevention.7 Although the findings on the benefits of diet, exercise, blood pressure management and cognitive training interventions are encouraging, the evidence so far is inconclusive. Regarding diet, there are a few reasons for this. Most of the randomized controlled trials have focused on individual foods or dietary supplements, and few studies have examined comprehensive diets such as the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), which is rich in healthful foods that offer protection against oxidative stress and inflammation, two pathways proposed to be at the root of Alzheimer’s dementia.3
What we eat also plays a role in the development of gut dysbiosis, an unhealthy imbalance of gut microbiota, which may lead to chronic levels of inflammation that can have an impact on neurological functions.6
The Gut Microbiome and Cognitive Changes
The gut microbiome is thought to be at the root of inflammation, as the gut is an important part of a complex communication system integrating the gastrointestinal, immune and nervous systems.6
A well-balanced gut microbiota provide protection against pathogens, assistance to the immune system and production of healthful short-chain fatty acids (SCFA). These SCFA provide energy to the cells lining the intestines to help strengthen the gut barrier and prevent leaky gut. These fatty acid compounds also impact the brain through the vagus nerve and systemic circulation. An imbalance of the gut microbiota is linked to the production of inflammatory compounds, including lipopolysaccharides (LPS), which can influence cytokine production and activate the immune system chronically and increase cell damage.8 The direct and indirect connection between the enteric nervous system (the digestive nervous system) and the central nervous system, the gut-brain axis, can impact cognitive functioning.4 The dysregulation of the gut-brain axis is worsened by this gut microbiota imbalance, which releases inflammatory compounds which can affect both metabolic and brain functions.
The prevention of chronic inflammation and immune activation in the gut-brain axis can help regulate mood and offer protection against cognitive decline.6,9 A typical Western diet is connected to negative changes in the gut microbiome and promotion of inflammation, while the increased fiber and unsaturated fats in the Mediterranean style diet are linked to the promotion of beneficial bacteria composition in the gut microbiome.6
The MIND Diet and Alzheimer’s Disease
When comparing groups who consume the Mediterranean diet with those who consume a typical Western diet, some observational studies show that those consuming the Mediterranean diet have a lower risk of dementia.3,7 A clinical trial is currently underway to examine the benefits of the MIND diet.7,10 Here are the components of this diet, which focuses on plant-based foods linked to the prevention of dementia. It includes foods from these ten categories:
- Leafy green vegetables, at least 6 servings/week
- Other vegetables, at least 1 serving/day
- Berries, at least 2 servings/week
- Whole grains, at least 3 servings/day
- Fish, 1 serving/week
- Poultry, 2 servings/week
- Beans, 3 servings/week
- Nuts, 5 servings/week
- Wine, 1 glass/day
- Olive oil
The MIND diet limits the following foods: red meat, sweets, cheese, butter/margarine, and fast/fried food. Although the serving recommendations for berries and vegetables are lower than that recommended on DASH, these modest amounts may help reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.11 Individuals following this eating pattern could be advised to have more servings of vegetables and berries as the recommended servings are not a limit, but rather a minimum goal for intake.
The Mediterranean diet has been well studied and is associated with lower levels of inflammation and might increase specific nutrients that protect the brain through antioxidative and anti-inflammatory effects.3,4,9 The Age-Related Eye Disease Study, a major clinical trial sponsored by the Eye Institute, provides a wealth of information on dietary patterns.12 The findings of this study were further analyzed and showed that participants who followed a Mediterranean-style diet had a lower risk of developing problems with cognitive function. A study of over 900 participants in the Memory and Aging Project found that the MIND diet slowed cognitive decline that comes with age.13 A similar study found that those who closely followed the MIND diet had a 53% reduction in the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease.11
Protein Intake Linked to Improved Cognitive Function
In examining the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) participants aged 60 and older, consuming protein from meat, eggs and legumes was positively associated with cognitive function.14 The results are mixed on the effects of milk and milk products on cognitive function, warranting further study.14,16
Vitamin D and Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplements May be Beneficial
Although no vitamin or supplement is recommended by research to slow cognitive decline, omega-3 fatty acid supplementation has been linked to improvements in composition and diversity of gut microbiota. Furthermore, it may increase beneficial LPS-suppressing bacteria and decrease LPS-producing bacteria.4,7 Studies on the benefit of supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA in the prevention of cognitive decline are promising but mixed, warranting additional study.5
Vitamin D has many functions in the central nervous system, and as we age, blood levels of vitamin D tend to wane due to a decline in the skin’s ability to synthesize vitamin D and older adults spending much of their time indoors.15 A meta-analysis found a significant association between vitamin D deficiency and Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. The results showed a stronger association between Alzheimer’s disease and dementia in those with a severe vitamin D deficiency (<10 ng/ml) when compared to those with a moderate deficiency (10-20 ng/ml), indicating that the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease was reduced with increased blood levels of vitamin D.17 While screening for vitamin D status has become more routine, it’s important to ensure those who are at greater risk for deficiency or are suspected to be deficient receive any necessary lab work to conclude whether supplementation is necessary.
Healthy Habits from the National Institute on Aging
The National Institute on Aging reviewed data from two NIA-funded population studies and developed this set of healthy lifestyle factors that were connected to a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease:
- At least 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity
- Not smoking
- Light-to-moderate alcohol consumption, 2 drinks or less per day for men, 1 drink or less per day for women18
- Following the MIND diet
- Engagement in late-life cognitive activities, such as volunteering or hobbies that are personally meaningful7
How Orgain Products Can Help
Orgain’s wide variety of ready-to-drink Nutritional Shakes and Organic Protein Bars make for an easy, on-the-go breakfast. An examination of the NHANES data found that breakfasts including more fruit, whole grains, milk, and yogurt were associated with the healthiest overall diets. Eating breakfast is a great way to get started on making healthier choices all day long, and choosing healthy foods at breakfast is connected to better diet quality.19
For a complete meal or snack that adheres to the MIND diet guidelines, combine an Orgain Nutritional Shake or Orgain Organic Protein Bar with berries and/or leafy greens. The guidelines provided by the National Institute on Aging represent a novel way of looking at diet and lifestyle changes that may help prevent cognitive decline, as well prevention of other Alzheimer’s risk factors, including diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.7
Here is what Orgain’s Nutrition Advisor, Andrea Mathis, MA, RDN, LD, shared with us about how else Orgain products can support brain health:
“Nutrition plays a crucial role in supporting brain health. Consuming a variety of quality foods that contain a great source of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, such as Orgain, helps to protect the brain from oxidative stress. Several of the Orgain products contain a variety of brain-healthy nutrients such as plant-based protein, phytonutrients and folate, which can easily be added to your daily diet regimen.”
1 The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Health and Economic Costs of Chronic Disease. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/about/costs/index.htm, accessed 4/21/2021.
2 Hurd MD, Martorell P, Delavande A, Mullen KJ, Langa KM. Monetary costs of dementia in the United States. New England Journal of Medicine 2013; 368(14): 1326–1334. doi:10.1056/NEJMsa1204629
3 National Academy of Science. Preventing Cognitive Decline and Dementia: A Way Forward. 2017. Pdf available at: http://nap.edu/24782. DOI 10.17226/24782
4 AHutchinson AN, Tingo L, Brummer RJ. The potential effects of probiotics and ω-3 fatty acids on chronic low-grade inflammation. Nutrients 2020; 12, 2402. doi:10.3390/nu12082402
5 Cardoso BR, Cominetti C, Franciscato Cozzolino SM. Importance and management of micronutrient deficiencies in patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Clinical Interventions in Aging 2013; 8:531-542. http://dx.doi.org/10.2147/CIA.S27983
6 Estrada JA, Contreras I. Nutritional modulation of immune and central nervous system homeostasis: the role of diet in development of neuroinflammation and neurological disease. Nutrients 2019; 11. doi:10.3390/nu11051076
7 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. National Institute on Aging. What do we know about diet and prevention of Alzheimer’s disease? Available at: https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/what-do-we-know-about-diet-and-prevention-alzheimers-disease, Combination of healthy lifestyle traits may substantially reduce Alzheimer’s disease risk. Available at: https://www.nia.nih.gov/news/combination-healthy-lifestyle-traits-may-substantially-reduce-alzheimers-disease-risk, accessed 4/21/2021.
8 Telle-Hansen VH, Holven KB, Ulven SM. Impact of a healthy dietary pattern on gut microbiota and systemic inflammation in humans. Nutrients 2018; 10. doi:10.3390/nu10111783
9 Calder PC, Bosco N, Bourdet-Sicard R, Capuron L, Delzenne N, Dore J, et al. Health relevance of the modification of low-grade inflammation in ageing (inflammageing) and the role of nutrition. Ageing Res. Rev. 2017; 40, 95–119. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.arr.2017.09.001
10 National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. DASH Eating Plan. Available at: https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/dash-eating-plan, accessed 4/22/2021. Morris MC, Tangney CC, Wang Y, Sacks FM, Bennett DA, et al. MIND diet associated with reduced incidence of Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimers Dementia 2015; 11(9):1007-14. doi: 10.1016/j.jalz.2014.11.009.
11 Keenan TD, Agron E, Mares JA, Clemons TE, van Asten F, et al. Adherence to a Mediterranean diet and cognitive function in the Age‐Related Eye Disease Studies 1 & 2. The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association 2020; 16(6), 831-842. https://doi.org/10.1002/alz.12077
12 Morris MC, Tangney CC, Wang Y, Sacks FM, Barnes LL, et al. MIND diet slows cognitive decline with aging. Alzheimers Dementia 2015; 11(9): 1015–1022. doi:10.1016/j.jalz.2015.04.011.
13 Li Y, Li S, Wang W, Zhang W. Association between dietary protein intake and cognitive function in adults aged 60 years and older. The Journal of Nutrition, Health and Aging 2020; 24(2):223-229. doi: 10.1007/s12603-020-1317-4. National Institutes of Health. Office of Dietary Supplements. Vitamin D. Available at: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-HealthProfessional/, accessed 4/22/2021.
14 Park KM, Fulgoni III VL. The association between dairy product consumption and cognitive function in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. British Journal of Nutrition 2013; 109, 1135–1142. doi:10.1017/S0007114512002905
15 Chai B, Gao F, Wu R, Dong T, Gu C, et al. Vitamin D deficiency as a risk factor for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease: an updated meta-analysis. BMC Neurology 2019; 19:284 https://doi.org/10.1186/s12883-019-1500-6
16 U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. 9th Edition. December 2020. Available at DietaryGuidelines.gov, accessed 5/11/2021.
17 Drewnowski A, Rehm CD, Vieux F. Breakfast in the United States: food and nutrient intakes in relation to diet quality in National Health and Examination Survey 2011–2014. A study from the International Breakfast Research Initiative. Nutrients 2018; 10(9), 1200. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu10091200
18 U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. 9th Edition. December 2020. Available at DietaryGuidelines.gov, accessed 5/11/2021.
19 Drewnowski A, Rehm CD, Vieux F. Breakfast in the United States: food and nutrient intakes in relation to diet quality in National Health and Examination Survey 2011–2014. A study from the International Breakfast Research Initiative. Nutrients 2018; 10(9), 1200. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu10091200