Healthy diet in childhood keeps brain sharp until age 70 and protects against dementia | Mental Health


Eating a healthy diet early in life could help you stay mentally fit until age 70 and even ward off dementia, according to a seven-decade-long study of thousands of British citizens.

While most studies on diet and cognitive ability have focused on people who are in or approaching old age, the new review is the first to look at people across the entire lifespan – from age four to age 70 – and suggests these links may start much earlier than previously recognised.

The research is among growing evidence that suggests a healthy diet may reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease and slow age-related cognitive decline. The findings were presented at the annual meeting of the American Society for Nutrition.

“These preliminary findings generally support current public health guidance that adopting healthy dietary patterns early in life is important for maintaining lifelong health,” said Kelly Kara of Tufts University in Massachusetts.

“Our findings also provide new evidence suggesting that improving dietary patterns by midlife may influence cognitive performance and help delay or reduce cognitive decline in later years.”

Cognitive performance may improve even into middle age, but typically begins to decline after age 65, the researchers said. Age-related decline can also lead to the development of more serious conditions, such as dementia.

For the new research, scientists studied 3,059 adults from the UK who were enrolled as children in a study called the National Survey of Health and Development. Members of the group, called the 1946 British Birth Cohort, have provided data on dietary intake, cognitive outcomes and other factors through questionnaires and tests over more than 75 years.

The researchers analysed the participants' diets at five time points and in relation to their cognitive ability at seven time points. They found that diet quality was closely linked to trends in cognitive ability.

For example, only 8% of people who ate a low-quality diet maintained higher cognitive ability, and only 7% of people who ate a high-quality diet maintained lower cognitive ability over time compared to their peers.

The researchers said cognitive ability as we age can have a significant impact on quality of life and independence. For example, by age 70, participants in the highest cognitive group showed much greater retention in working memory, processing speed and general cognitive performance than those in the lowest cognitive group.

Additionally, approximately one-quarter of participants in the lowest cognitive group showed symptoms of dementia at that time, whereas none of those in the highest cognitive group showed symptoms of dementia.

While most people saw steady improvements in their diets throughout adulthood, the researchers found that small differences in diet quality in childhood made later-life dietary patterns better or worse.

“This suggests that diet in early life may influence our dietary decisions in later life, and that the cumulative effect of diet over time is linked to the progression of our global cognitive abilities,” Kaira said.

Study participants, who maintained the highest cognitive abilities over time compared with their peers, ate more recommended foods such as vegetables, fruits, legumes and whole grains, and less sodium, added sugar and refined grains.

“Dietary patterns that are high in whole or less processed plant-food groups, including leafy green vegetables, beans, whole fruits and whole grains, may be most protective,” Carra said.

“Advancing your dietary intake at any age to include more of these foods and align more closely with current dietary recommendations is likely to improve our health in many ways, including our cognitive health.”

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