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Science & Medicine: Brain healthy diets

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Roberto Martinez

Debora Melo van Lent, a PhD nutrition scientist and epidemiologist at UT Health San Antonio’s Glenn Biggs Institute for Alzheimer’s & Neurodegenerative Diseases, studies diets that might slow brain aging and reduce the risk of dementia.

Melo van Lent and other researchers in her field have suspected that foods which cause inflammation speed up brain aging and cognitive decline.

“Inflammation is a mechanism in the body that actually when our body is healthy, it is a healthy mechanism. It helps the body to keep going,” Melo van Lent said. “But when we age these particular mechanisms and cells, they start to overproduce inflammatory markers. And that means that then it actually starts to damage our body.”

The brain is part of the body, and to test the idea that inflammation might also damage that organ, Melo van Lent used a tool called the Dietary Inflammation Index to rank foods eaten by participants in the Framingham Heart Study.

"All these nutrients and foods, they are either pro-inflammatory or anti-inflammatory," she explained. "So the higher your diet scored, the more pro-inflammatory your diet is."

Her team checked to see if diets high in foods known to cause inflammation, according to the DII, impacted brain health.

"And what did we find? We found that in these higher DII scores were associated with smaller total brain volume," she said.

Debora Melo van Lent, PhD
The UT Health Science Center at San Antonio
Debora Melo van Lent, PhD

Reduced total brain volume is an early marker of dementia. So how do researchers slow down this brain-aging-train?

"That is our most frequently asked question. Is there this secret pill? No, it's actually a mindset. I think that's the pill. That's the secret. Your mindset,” she said. “If you know about this information, you can reflect for yourself. How would you like to live the next 30 years?"

If someone's mind is set on keeping their brain as healthy as possible for as long as possible, Melo Van Lent said, it becomes much easier to choose to eat more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and foods containing omega 3s like fatty fish and avocados.

Nutrients and foods that are anti-inflammatory, according to the DII, include:

  • Alcohol, beta carotene, caffeine, dietary fiber, folic acid, magnesium, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, zinc, monounsaturated fat, polyunsaturated fat, omega-3 fat, omega-6 fat, selenium, vitamins B6, A, C, D, E, green/black tea, pepper and garlic

Pro-inflammatory nutrients and food include:

  • Vitamin B12, iron, carbohydrates, cholesterol, total energy intake, protein, saturated fat and total fat

Coffee and alcohol are anti-inflammatory? Melo van Lent said, yes, current research points in that direction. She said people who consume caffeine appear to have lower levels of six predominant inflammatory markers.
Research has also found that moderate alcohol consumption can reduce some biomarkers of inflammation.

Melo van Lent has also co-authored research that found that an adapted version of the Mediterranean diet, called the MIND diet, might significantly reduce a person’s risk for developing dementia.

Science & Medicine is a collaboration between TPR and The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, about how scientific discovery in San Antonio advances the way medicine is practiced everywhere.