New York, NY – A recent study led by researchers from NYU Grossman School of Medicine has unveiled compelling insights into the connection between dietary choices in midlife and cognitive function later in life. The study suggests that women who adhere to the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet during their middle years are approximately 17 percent less likely to report memory loss and other indicators of cognitive decline as they age. This finding holds particular significance, given that women make up more than two-thirds of those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia.
Implications for the Growing Alzheimer’s Population
These findings, now published in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia, carry vital implications for the estimated 6.5 million Americans aged 65 and older who were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2022. This number is projected to more than double by 2060.
According to Yu Chen, PhD, MPH, professor in the Department of Population Health and senior author of the study, “Subjective complaints about daily cognitive performance are early predictors of more serious neurocognitive disorders such as Alzheimer’s. With more than 30 years of follow-up, we found that the stronger the adherence to a DASH diet in midlife, the less likely women are to report cognitive issues much later in life.”
The DASH Diet: A Nutritional Approach to Cognitive Health
The DASH diet primarily comprises a high consumption of plant-based foods rich in potassium, calcium, and magnesium. Simultaneously, it restricts the intake of saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, and sugar. Extensive research has consistently shown that high blood pressure, particularly in midlife, is a known risk factor for cognitive decline and dementia.
Examining the Study
The researchers based their analysis on data from 5,116 of the more than 14,000 women enrolled in the NYU Women’s Health Study, one of the longest-running studies of its kind exploring the impact of lifestyle and other factors on the development of common women’s cancers and chronic conditions.
At the study’s inception, between 1985 and 1991, participants, on average, were 49 years old. Over the course of more than 30 years (reaching an average age of 79), these women were periodically asked to report any cognitive complaints. Even those who did not return questionnaires were contacted via phone.
Self-reported cognitive complaints were assessed using six validated standard questions that indicate the potential for later mild cognitive impairment leading to dementia. These questions encompassed difficulties in remembering recent events or shopping lists, understanding spoken instructions or group conversations, and navigating familiar streets.
Among the six cognitive complaints evaluated, 33 percent of women reported experiencing more than one. Notably, women who most closely adhered to the DASH diet had a 17 percent reduction in the odds of reporting multiple cognitive complaints.
A Call to Prioritize a Healthy Diet in Midlife
Lead author Yixiao Song emphasized the study’s implication, stating, “Our data suggest that it is important to start a healthy diet in midlife to prevent cognitive impairment in older age. Following the DASH diet may not only prevent high blood pressure but also cognitive issues.”
In a world where cognitive health and Alzheimer’s prevention are becoming increasingly crucial, the study underscores the potential of dietary choices made in midlife to shape cognitive outcomes in later years. Researchers hope that this knowledge will encourage individuals to consider their diets as an essential component of their cognitive well-being.