Eating a diet with more fruits, vegetables, legumes, tea and coffee has been linked with a lower dementia incidence. It is thought this is due to the anti-inflammatory properties of different nutrients present in these food types.
A recent study found that those who consumed a diet low in anti-inflammatory foods exhibited a three times higher risk of developing dementia later in life. The research group from the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens (Greece) surveyed 1,059 people over 3 years and found 62 people developed dementia over this time.
Dementia and other age-related diseases are associated with chronic inflammation that becomes more common as we age. What we eat and drink can impact systemic inflammation by altering the bacteria in the gut and the levels of inflammatory markers and proteins in the blood.
“There may be some potent nutritional tools in your home to help fight the inflammation that could contribute to brain aging,” explained Nikolaos Scarmeas, who leads the research group. “Diet is a lifestyle factor you can modify, and it might play a role in combating inflammation, one of the biological pathways contributing to risk for dementia and cognitive impairment later in life.”
Scarmeas’ group monitored participant’s diets over 3 years using a biomarker-validated diet inflammatory index (DII) to determine if there was an association between the DII score and dementia incidence.
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The DII considers the levels of pro- or anti-inflammatory cytokines in the blood, based on 45 food parameters in previous research. The associated score ranges from -8.87 to 7.98, with a higher score relating to a more inflammatory diet.
To determine each person’s DII, participants answered a food frequency questionnaire to describe the levels of different food groups and drinks consumed during the previous months.
The study randomly sampled 1,059 people with an average age of 73 and without any baseline dementia indicators. The average DII of those who developed dementia was -0.06, compared to -0.70 for those who did not. Researchers determined that each one-point DII increase was associated with a 21% increase in dementia incidence.
Those with the most inflammatory diets, with scores of 0.21 and above, were found to have nine servings for fruit, two servings of legumes, 10 vegetables servings and nine teas or coffees weekly. In comparison, those with the lowest inflammatory diets ate around twice as many servings of fruits, legumes and vegetables and drank 11 coffees or teas per week. Participants with diets in the lowest third of DII scores were 3 times less likely to develop dementia than those with diets in the top third.
“Our results are getting us closer to characterizing and measuring the inflammatory potential of people’s diets,” Scarmeas adds. “That in turn could help inform more tailored and precise dietary recommendations and other strategies to maintain cognitive health.”
Before you rush to buy all the fruits and vegetables to increase your anti-inflammatory food intake, this study only presents an association and does not yet prove that the causality of an anti-inflammatory diet leading to a lower dementia risk. Clinical trials with longer follow-up periods and a greater sample size are required before a more definitive answer can be given. However, given all the benefits already attributed to diets high in fruits and vegetables, it won’t hurt to finish your broccoli.