People with a family history of dementia can still reduce risk by eating these foods


Sticking to a Mediterranean diet — full of whole foods like vegetables, fruit, fish, nuts and healthy fats— is associated with lower risk of developing dementia or Alzheimer’s, even if you have a genetic risk for it, according to new research.

The study, published in the journal BMC Medicine, looked at over 60,000 individuals ages 60 and older and followed them for about nine years. “There were close to 900 cases of dementia (and) people who followed strictly a Mediterranean diet had almost a quarter lower chance of developing dementia,” Dr. Natalie Azar, NBC News medical contributor, told TODAY in a segment aired March 14.

Previous research has shown that following a Mediterranean diet can help prevent Alzheimer’s and slow the progression of cognitive decline, previously reported.

However, this new study also factored in genetics by giving the participants a risk score constructed using about 250,000 genetic variants associated with Alzheimer’s disease, which is the most common form of dementia.

Participants whose food choices were most consistent with the Mediterranean diet were 23% less likely to develop dementia during the nine-year period covered by the study compared to participants with the lowest level of adherence to the diet, according to the study authors.

“They actually took into account genetic risk, and that didn’t even make a difference, which is really encouraging because you think that certain things are predetermined, but this is the kind of thing that we can all actually implement in our life,” said Azar.

“The main take home message from this study is that, even for individuals with a higher genetic risk, consuming a more Mediterranean-like diet could reduce the likelihood of developing dementia,” the study’s lead author Oliver Shannon, a lecturer in human nutrition and aging at Newcastle University, told NBC News.

The findings underscore the importance of sticking to a nutrient-dense, whole food-packed diet to boost your brain health and promote healthy aging.

What is the Mediterranean diet?

The Mediterranean diet, often called MD or MedDiet for short, is filled with nutrient-dense plant-based foods and healthy fats. According to Azar, this means a diet heavy in these foods:

  • Fresh fruits: blueberries, apples, oranges, pears, figs
  • Vegetables: broccoli, carrots, kale, tomatoes, fennel
  • Whole grains: brown rice, quinoa, bulgur
  • Nuts and seeds: walnuts, almonds, pistachios, pumpkin seeds
  • Legumes: lentils, beans, peas
  • Fish: wild salmon, tuna, sardines
  • Extra virgin olive oil

A Mediterranean diet is also naturally low in sugar, sodium, highly processed foods, refined carbs, saturated fats and fatty or processed meats. “You want to limit or eat in moderation red meat, eggs, poultry, cheese and sweets,” said Azar.

But at the same time, the Mediterranean diet is not about restriction — it should be flexible, accessible and focused on the pleasure of eating and enjoying meals, TODAY previously reported.

The health benefits of this diet are well-documented, and it is consistently ranked as one of the best science-backed diets out there by doctors.

In addition to being associated with a longer lifespan, research suggests this whole food and nutrient-packed diet can reduce inflammation, protect against heart disease and stroke, lower cholesterol and promote healthy aging.

“It’s helps your heart health and helps the blood vessels in the brain — we don’t know exactly why, but nonetheless this is very compelling,” said Azar.

A recent study which looked at over 500 postmortem autopsies found that seniors who stuck to a Mediterranean diet showed less brain plaques or toxic buildups of abnormal proteins (beta-amyloids), which are thought to play a major role in Alzheimer’s disease, TODAY previously reported.

In addition to sticking to a healthy diet, other lifestyle factors can help slow cognitive decline and reduce the risk of developing dementia, said Azar. These include: getting adequate sleep, controlling your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood glucose, and staying physically and mentally active.

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