Could a plant-based diet help maintain brain health and prolong cognitive functioning into older age? Preliminary findings from the Rush Institute for Healthy Aging suggest that a plant-based diet could significantly stall cognitive decline in older Black adults. Without a cure for Alzheimer’s and dementia, protecting brain health in old age seems impossible, but now, people can start protecting their cognitive ability by simply improving their diets.

African Americans are about twice as likely to develop dementia compared to non-Hispanic white Americans. Dietary modification is an effective preventive strategy to reduce the rate of cognitive decline, a hallmark feature of dementia, the authors noted in the study's abstract. "A healthy plant-based diet was associated with a slower rate of decline in global cognition, perceptual speed, and episodic memory in African Americans," they added. "These results are informative in facilitating the development of tailored dietary recommendations for the prevention of cognitive decline in diverse populations."

The study’s research team analyzed the diet and cognitive performance of 4,753 African American and white adults to determine how diet correlated with the decline of cognition, perceptual speed, and episodic memory. The entire participant pool averaged 74 years old at the start of the study, working with the researchers for over a decade. The team concluded that a healthy plant-based diet slowed cognitive decline substantially more for Black adults than for white adults.

Diet and brain health

The researchers divided the participants into three groups based on their self-reported dietary patterns:

  • People eating healthy plant-based diets complete with nuts, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes
  • People eating plant-based with less-healthy foods including refined grains, sweetened beverages, processed foods, and fruit juices
  • People who follow a non-vegan diet that includes dairy, eggs, meat, fish, and seafood

The study revealed that cognitive decline slowed by 28.4 percent for Black adults following a healthy plant-based diet.

The findings suggest that Black adults can delay the effects of dementia and Alzheimer’s dramatically by adopting a plant-based diet in younger years. The dramatic findings showed eating a plant-based healthy diet without unhealthy refined grains could slow decline in two main areas by nearly 50 percent:

  • Participants who ate the healthiest diet showed a 49.3 percent slower decline in perceptual speed
  • Participants who ate the healthiest diet showed a 44.2 percent slower decline in episodic memory

The Rush Institute for Healthy Aging presented the data at the American Heart Association’s Epidemiology and Prevention, Lifestyle, and Cardiometabolic Health conference in Chicago. While the findings heavily suggest that plant-based diets directly contribute to brain health, the research will be considered preliminary until the study is published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Plant-Based Foods Can Improve Cognitive Function

This new study joins a growing collection of research linking brain functioning to plant-based diets. While the Rush Institute study is considered preliminary, other researchers have found similar links to the role of a healthy plant-based diet in fighting cognitive decline. Research from the U.S. National Eye Institute suggests that minimizing meat and dairy in your diet could help reduce long-term risks of developing dementia.

Current estimates claim that more than 5 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer's and more people develop other forms of dementia. With few opportunities to delay this brain disease, people have turned to tangible solutions including diet.

A study published by the journal Alzheimer's & Dementia shows that a plant-forward diet or Mediterranean diet could help prevent cognitive decline. The study notes that in order for the diet to be effective, people must avoid even a small amount of animal fat or unhealthy meat and dairy-based foods. But, what should you eat to improve brain functioning into old age?

What to Eat for Healthy Cognition

The research shows that the first step to improving longevity for brain functioning is to introduce plant-based foods and cut out meat and dairy products. But if you do not know where to start, nutrition researcher Martha Clare Morris, Ph.D. developed the MIND diet to help prevent cognitive decline. The diet is a blend of the Mediterranean and DASH diets, which both prioritize plant-based foods.

A study from 2019 even noted that the MIND diet is effective in preventing cognitive decline for people recovering from a stroke. The study notes that the MIND diet incorporates ingredients and nutrients that promote brain functioning such as omega-3 fatty acids, polyphenols in berries, and vitamin E in extra virgin olive oil.

If switching to a fully plant-based diet or the MIND diet feels especially intimidating, try introducing foods that have been proven to help brain functioning into your everyday routine. Check out these five foods for better brain health, improved concentration, and elevated mood.

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