Eating lots of fruits, veggies, beans and other foods with inflammation-cooling properties may lower your odds of developing dementia as you age.
But, if your diet is loaded with pro-inflammatory foods, you may be up to three times more likely to experience memory loss and issues with language, problem-solving and other thinking skills as you age, new research suggests.
"A less inflammatory diet relates to less risk for developing dementia," said study author Dr. Nikolaos Scarmeas, an associate professor of neurology at National and Kapodistrian University of Athens in Greece.
Exactly how, or even if, diet can help stave off dementia and preserve brain health isn't fully understood yet. "Diet may affect brain health via many mechanisms, and according to our findings, inflammation may be one of them," Scarmeas said.
For the study, more than 1,000 people in Greece (average age: 73) completed a questionnaire to determine the inflammatory potential or score of their diet. No one had dementia when the study began. Six percent developed dementia during a follow-up of just over three years.
Dietary inflammation scores range from -8.87 to 7.98, with higher scores pointing to a more inflammatory diet. Folks with the lowest scores were less likely to develop dementia than folks with higher ones, the study showed.
Each 1-point increase in dietary inflammatory score was associated with a 21% increase in dementia risk.
Those with the lowest scores consumed about 20 servings of fruit, 19 of vegetables, 4 of beans or other legumes, and 11 of coffee or tea each week. In contrast, people with the highest scores ate about 9 servings of fruit, 10 of vegetables, 2 of legumes, and 9 of coffee or tea per week.
It's not the whole food per se, but all the nutrients it contains that contributes to its inflammatory potential, Scarmeas explained. Each food has both pro- and anti-inflammatory ingredients.
"In general, a diet with more fruits, vegetables, beans, tea or coffee is a more anti-inflammatory one," he said.
The study does not prove that eating an anti-inflammatory diet prevents brain aging and dementia, only that there's a link between them.
Longer follow-up is needed to draw any firm conclusions on how inflammatory diet score affects brain health, Scarmeas cautioned.
The findings were published Nov. 10 in the journal Neurology.
Dr. Thomas Holland, a physician-scientist at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, reviewed the findings.
"This study is lending further weight to the mechanism inflammation — specifically neuro-inflammation — that much of us understand as being one of the main players in causing cognitive decline and Alzheimer's dementia," he said.
Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia.
For brain health, Holland recommends the MIND diet, the Mediterranean diet or the DASH diet. All three center on lean meats, fish, whole grains, fresh produce and olive oil. The MIND (or Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) diet combines elements from the Mediterranean and DASH diets and was specifically designed to help combat dementia.
So what should you eat to help boost brain health? Holland offered his suggestions.
"Berries, dark leafy greens, nuts, whole wheat, garlic, onions, peppers, tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil, non-fried dark fish, and poultry," he said.
These foods may decrease the strength and/or duration of the inflammatory process in your body and brain, Holland said. Some act as antioxidants, which sop up damaging free radicals and lower inflammation.
"Avoiding a Western-type diet pattern is also important, including reduced intake of whole-fat dairy, fried or fast foods, pastries and red meat," he said.
Holland noted that pro-inflammatory foods can lead to uncontrolled inflammation and damage.
"If that damage occurs in the brain, the potential to develop dementia exists," he said.