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MIND & DIET MATTER: Vegetables Will Save Your Mind

By John McDougall, M.D.

Associations of vegetable and fruit consumption with age-related cognitive change by Martha Clare Morris from the Rush Institute of Health and Aging, Chicago, IL, published in the October 2006 issue of the journal Neurology found, “High vegetable but not fruit consumption may be associated with slower rate of cognitive decline with older age.”1

This six-year study of 65-year and older Chicago residents found a 35% slower decline in cognitive function each year for those who ate the most vegetables.  In the entire group of people under study the average number of vegetable servings a day was 2.3, with a range from 0 to 8.2.  Green leafy vegetables, summer squash, eggplant, and kale were some of the vegetables found to be valuable—however, this list should not be considered exclusively beneficial. 

The authors believe the benefits to the nervous system were from the antioxidants and other bioactive compounds (like flavanoid).  Even though fruits are also rich in these bioactive substances, the researchers could not explain why their findings failed to support similar benefits from fruits.

Comments by John McDougall, M.D.:  Research from this same group published in 2004 showed, “A diet high in saturated or trans-unsaturated fat or low in nonhydrogenated unsaturated fats may be associated with cognitive decline among older persons.”2  This dietary trend—more fat and fewer vegetables—is reminiscent of the discussion of heart disease, strokes, type-2 diabetes, and other degenerative diseases.  The same harmful diet that is causing artery closure to the heart may be closing the small and large arteries to the brain with resulting loss of intellectual activity.  Furthermore, research on another common form of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, has also found a causal relationship with dietary fat and cholesterol. (See my June 2004 Newsletter article: Alzheimer’s Disease Can Be Safely Prevented and Treated Now.)

Often times the variation in what people eat is so small that benefits are unrecognizable.  The fact that this research was done on people who all eat the rich Western diet and still shows a difference is noteworthy.  Worldwide, people’s diets show much greater variety in the amount of plant and animal foods. This larger variation is reflected in the observed difference in the incidence of dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease—both are much less common in Asian countries where people eat mostly starches (rice), compared to people of Europe and the US, where dairy and meat are the dominant foods.3

The threat of becoming mentally incapacitated and a burden on family and society is scarier than the threat of dying.  Therefore, this research showing the right dietary choices will keep us functioning can act as a strong motivator.  The ideal diet for the preservation of mental and physical function is based on starches, with the addition of fruits and vegetables.

1) Morris MC, Evans DA, Tangney CC, Bienias JL, Wilson RS.  Associations of vegetable and fruit consumption with age-related cognitive change. Neurology. 2006 Oct 24;67(8):1370-6.

2) Morris MC, Evans DA, Bienias JL, Tangney CC, Wilson RS.  Dietary fat intake and 6-year cognitive change in an older biracial community population.  Neurology. 2004 May 11;62(9):1573-9.

3) Jorm AF, Jolley D.  The incidence of dementia: a meta-analysis. Neurology. 1998 Sep;51(3):728-33.

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