Martha Clare Morris details her MIND diet for healthy brain aging at 2017 Fall Lecture

The Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center hosted more 450 attendees at its 2017 Annual Fall Lecture, “The Science Behind Alzheimer’s Disease Prevention & Brain Health,” on October 4 at Gordon Dining and Event Center on the University of  Wisconsin-Madison campus. Currently, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, placing a lot of importance on Alzheimer’s disease prevention. The evening’s speakers shared their research on Alzheimer’s disease prevention science through diet, exercise, and heart health. The event began with a Healthy Aging Resource Fair, offering event-goers healthy aging information from local organizations and businesses.

The keynote speaker, Dr. Martha Clare Morris, is a professor of epidemiology at Rush University in Chicago and director of the Rush Institute for Healthy Aging. Dr. Morris is a pioneer in working to find effective dietary interventions to prevent Alzheimer’s disease. In 2015, she published the MIND diet for healthy brain aging, based on years of research into nutrition, aging, and Alzheimer’s disease. The MIND diet was created by taking the basics of the DASH and Mediterranean diets, two diets popular for weight loss and heart health, and modifying them to incorporate science-supported dietary changes that improve brain health.

One of Dr. Morris’ early research studies looked at dietary patterns. She found that people who ate the least amount of vegetables had the fastest rates of cognitive decline, but as intake of vegetables per day increased, cognitive decline slowed. Her research found that eating two or more servings of vegetables per day offered a statistically significant reduction in cognitive decline. Green leafy vegetables, in particular, were associated with slower decline, and people who ate green leafy vegetables at least six times a week exhibited much slower cognitive decline — researchers estimated it was like being 11 years younger in age.                                                                                                       

While Dr. Morris’ early research showed vegetable consumption protects the brain against cognitive decline, it is not the case with fruit. The exception, however, is with berries. Research in rodents has shown incorporating berries — blueberries, strawberries, cranberries, and blackberries — into a diet protects brain function. The research showed strawberries had the highest positive effect on motor function, and blueberries had the highest positive effect on memory function.

These findings helped Dr. Morris develop a diet specialized in Alzheimer’s disease prevention. The diet was tested in a highly controlled study of 994 people over 10 years to determine if the diet could prevent cognitive decline and reduce risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Study participants were tested on how well they followed the MIND diet using a MIND diet score, and also their cognitive function. The results were published in 2015 and showed people who had the lowest third of MIND diet scores, meaning they followed the diet less, had the fastest rate of cognitive decline. People who had the highest third of scores had the slowest rate of decline. The difference between the highest third and lowest third in cognitive decline was equivalent to about 7.5 year of aging. People who were in the highest third of MIND diet scores had a 53% reduction in the risk of developing Alzheimer’s, and those who had the middle third of scores for following the MIND diet still had a 35% reduction in the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, proving the MIND diet more effective than both the Mediterranean and DASH diets. The MIND diet also proved to be twice as effective in terms of preventing cognitive decline, as well.

Two additional speakers offered presentations on their research into Alzheimer’s disease prevention. Dr. Heather Johnson, associate professor in the Division of Cardiovascular Medicine at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, presented “Keys to a Healthy Heart and a Healthy Mind.” Dr. Jill Barnes, assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology at UW-Madison, offered her talk “The Role of Exercise in Healthy Aging.”

Videos of the evening’s presentations are on the Wisconsin ADRC YouTube channel. You can also listen to an episode of the “Dementia Matters” podcast with Dr. Morris.