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What's the Best Diet for Menopausal Brain Health?

brain health nutrition May 30, 2022

Study finds the MIND Diet may contribute to improved cognitive resilience and performance with age.


By Selene Yeager


Brain health is a topic that comes up a lot in our Feisty Menopause community, and with good reason. Women are at an increased risk for developing dementia and our hormones appear to play a role, especially during menopause. The good news is that research shows that what you eat may reduce your risk, even if you have already developed signs of degeneration. 


That's encouraging, as research on other potential protections, such as menopausal hormone therapy is ongoing and still somewhat conflicting, as the type and timing of the therapy impacts the outcomes, and diet is one thing we can all adjust right now. Research from the past seven years shows that the "MIND Diet" may be the way to go for cognitive protection.


Your Brain on Estrogen

Research shows that estrogen is neuroprotective: it increases blood flow to the brain and improves brain connectivity so different parts of your brain can communicate with each other. It influences memory and cognition and helps decrease the risk and delay the onset of neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s by helping to prevent the buildup of plaques in the brain.


When estrogen declines, our brain loses that protection. Research shows women with a genetic predisposition for Alzheimer’s accumulate more protein deposits, known as amyloid plaques and tangles during perimenopause than men and women without the genetic risk.


Research shows that the MIND Diet may benefit your brain, even if you’ve already developed those plaques and tangles that are the hallmark of Alzheimer’s Disease.



Eating for Better Brain Health During Menopause

The MIND Diet (which is short for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) was developed based on clinical trials published in 2015 that found that older adults who rigorously followed key brain-protective elements of the Mediterranean and DASH diet reduced their risk of Alzheimer’s by 53 percent. Those who stuck to it moderately well, still decreased their risk by 35 percent.


A study published last fall in the in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, took those findings one step further, reporting that participants who adhered moderately well to the MIND diet later in life did not have cognition problems, even if they already had developed amyloid plaques and tangles.


“Some people have enough plaques and tangles in their brains to have a postmortem diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, but they do not develop clinical dementia in their lifetime,” said Klodian Dhana, MD, PhD, lead author of the paper and an assistant professor in in the Department of Internal Medicine at Rush Medical College, in a press release.


“Some have the ability to maintain cognitive function despite the accumulation of these pathologies in the brain, and our study suggests that the MIND diet is associated with better cognitive functions independently of brain pathologies related to Alzheimer’s disease,” Dhana said in the release.


To examine the protective effects of the MIND Diet, the researchers pooled participants from the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center’s ongoing Memory and Aging Project, which began in 1997 and includes people living in greater Chicago. The participants agreed to undergo clinical evaluations while they were alive and to allow a brain autopsy after their death.


For this paper, the researchers followed 569 participants who were asked to complete annual evaluations and cognitive tests to see if they had developed memory and thinking problems. Beginning in 2004, the participants filled out food frequency questionnaires about how often they ate 144 various foods.


Using the questionnaire answers, the researchers gave each participant a MIND diet score based on how often the participants ate 15 specific foods, including what the diet classifies as 10 brain-healthy foods, such as beans, berries, whole grains, fish, green leafy and other vegetables, nuts, poultry, olive oil, and wine (if you drink alcohol) and what the diet classifies as five unhealthy brain food groups, including red meat, butter and stick margarine, cheese, pastries and sweets, and fried or fast food.


The researchers considered someone to be adhering to the MIND diet if they ate at least three servings of whole grains, a green leafy vegetable and one other vegetable every day — along with a glass of wine; snack most days on nuts; have beans every other day or so; eat poultry and berries at least twice a week, and have fish at least once a week. They also needed to have consumed lesser amounts of the designated unhealthy foods, limiting butter to less than 1 1/2 teaspoons a day and eating less than a serving a week of sweets and pastries, whole fat cheese, and fried or fast food.


“We found that a higher MIND diet score was associated with better memory and thinking skills independently of Alzheimer's disease pathology and other common age-related brain pathologies. The diet seemed to have a protective capacity and may contribute to cognitive resilience in the elderly.” Dhana said in the release.


You can find a beginner’s guide to the MIND Diet in this U.S. News & World Report feature.


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