3 surprising foods that may protect your brain in old age


We’re often told to eat less meat and keep fatty foods at bay, so we can keep our brains healthy well into old age. But the latest research appears to question this perceived wisdom. 

Researchers at Iowa State University discovered something that is potentially good news for anyone who enjoys a little culinary indulgence. 

They looked at data collected from 1,787 ageing adults (from 46 to 77 years of age, at the completion of the study) in the United Kingdom through the UK Biobank, a large-scale biomedical database and research resource containing in-depth genetic and health information from half-a-million UK participants. 

A touchscreen questionnaire was designed to analyse how well participants could think on their feet, to analyse brain agility. 

Those who took part were also questioned about their intake of fresh fruit, dried fruit, raw vegetables and salad, cooked vegetables, oily fish, lean fish, processed meat, poultry, beef, lamb, pork, cheese, bread, cereal, tea and coffee, beer and cider, red wine, white wine and champagne and spirits.

Cheese, please!


The study found that the food most associated with staving off age-related cognitive problems is cheese. Alcohol, particularly red wine, was related to improvements in cognitive function. Although red meat in general is bad news for the brain, researchers found one exception – eating lamb once a week had a positive effect on brain agility. 

Principal investigator, Auriel Willette, an assistant professor in Food Science and Human Nutrition commented: 

I was pleasantly surprised that our results suggest that responsibly eating cheese and drinking red wine daily are not just good for helping us cope with our current COVID-19 pandemic, but perhaps also dealing with an increasingly complex world that never seems to slow down.

He added ‘While we took into account whether this was just due to what well-off people eat and drink, randomized clinical trials are needed to determine if making easy changes in our diet could help our brains in significant ways."

Fellow researcher Brandon Klinedinst added, "Depending on the genetic factors you carry, some individuals seem to be more protected from the effects of Alzheimers, while other seem to be at greater risk. That said, I believe the right food choices can prevent the disease and cognitive decline altogether. Perhaps the silver bullet we're looking for is upgrading how we eat. Knowing what that entails contributes to a better understanding of Alzheimer's and putting this disease in a reverse trajectory."

Nutritionist Stephanie Moore is not surprised by this, as she believes nutritionally-dense higher fat food are better for the body. She says: 'Carbohydrate foods cause a rapid increase in levels of sugar in your blood – blood glucose. High blood glucose levels trigger the hormone insulin to be sent into the bloodstream.' This is associated with a diabetes risk, which can lead to vascular dementia.

Mediterranean diet can help protect against dementia

Previous research has indicated that a diet focused on plant-based foods is linked to dementia prevention - specifically, Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND). It encourages eating from 10 healthy food groups:

  • Leafy green vegetables, at least 6 servings/week
  • Other vegetables, at least 1 serving/day
  • Berries, at least 2 servings/week
  • Whole grains, at least 3 servings/day
  • Fish, 1 serving/week
  • Poultry, 2 servings/week
  • Beans, 3 servings/week
  • Nuts, 5 servings/week
  • Wine, 1 glass/day
  • Olive oil
  • The MIND diet limits servings of red meat, sweets, cheese, butter/margarine and fast/fried food.

An analysis of diet and other factors found that, after an average of 4.5 years, people who adhered most closely to the MIND diet had a 53% reduced rate of Alzheimer’s disease compared to those who did not follow the diet closely.

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