Healthy food interventions may slow cognitive decline

If you remember anything from Colorado State University’s recent nutrition conference that focused on the role of nutrition in the cognitive health of aging adults it should be: Eat your veggies, especially the green, leafy ones. Nibble on blueberries, munch on walnuts, and consume fish once a week.

In research trials, these foods in particular have been shown to support brain health, such as memory and processing, as you age. Lifestyle changes, such as increased consumption of fruits and vegetables, and physical activity, have also shown promise in reducing age-related disease risk.

These were just a few of the ideas shared at the 2016 Lillian Fountain Smith Nutrition Conference in Fort Collins May 19-20. The annual conference, hosted by CSU’s Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition and supported by the Lillian Fountain Smith Endowment, featured eight nutrition experts from across the country. Here’s highlights from just a few:

The MIND diet

Martha Clare Morris, a nutritional epidemiologist from Rush University, presented information on the MIND diet, a diet developed to help reduce Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and cognitive decline.

The MIND diet, which stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay, combines the benefits of the Mediterranean and the DASH diet, the latter designed to reduce high blood pressure. In a study funded by the National Institute on Aging, the MIND diet lowered Alzheimer’s risk by about 35 percent for those who followed it moderately well, and up to 53 percent for those who followed it strictly.

The MIND diet includes 10 “brain-healthy” food components: green leafy vegetables, other vegetables, nuts, berries, beans, whole grains, fish, poultry, olive oil, and red wine. It also includes five “brain-unhealthy groups” to limit or avoid: red meat, butter and stick margarine, cheese, pastries and sweets, and fried or fast food.

The Cache County study

Kathleen Welsh-Bohmer, Director of the Bryan Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at Duke University, studies the genetic and environmental factors that contribute to AD risk.

Welsh-Bohmer led the Cache County study that followed a geographically isolated, aging population in Cache County, Utah, from 1995 to 2007. One focus of the study was to examine why some seniors in this locale developed AD early on, some later, and why one segment of this aging population, approximately 30 percent, never developed AD, despite their advanced age. The research demonstrated that AD is not an inevitable consequence of aging, according to Welsh-Bohmer.

The study found that increased risk of developing AD was related to:

  1. Presence of a variant of the APOE gene, e4
  2. Untreated vascular health conditions (poor heart health)
  3. Lifestyle patterns, including a sedentary lifestyle, obesity, and stress.

To provide support to individuals at risk for AD, Welsh-Bohmer’s team developed a mobile app to remind participants to eat healthy food portions daily, such as berries, nuts, whole grains and leafy vegetables. (In two previous research studies, leafy green vegetables were shown to have the strongest effect in slowing mental decline.)

Berry fruits

Barbara Shukitt-Hale, a research psychologist at Tufts University, discussed the effects of berry fruits on cognition and motor function in aging. Her pre-clinical data demonstrated that blueberry consumption reduced oxidative stress and inflammation in the brain. Therefore, blueberries may protect against age-related deficits in cognitive and motor function.


For the first time in history, the aging population of those 60-plus years old outnumbers those under 5 years of age. Currently, 5.4 million Americans live with Alzheimer’s disease, the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States. As life expectancy increases, it’s important to find ways to slow cognitive decline.

Clinical trials to develop a drug to slow or cure Alzheimer’s disease have shown little success — in fact, a success rate of 0.4 percent. Lifestyle factors, including nutrition and exercise, appear to be important to the maintenance of cognitive function and perhaps to reduced risk for the development of age-related diseases, including AD.

The Lillian Fountain Smith Conference honors Mrs. Smith, a 1918 graduate in home economics from Colorado State University (then Colorado A&M), and is sustained by the Lillian Fountain Smith Conference Endowment, established by Mr. and Mrs. Smith and their children. The Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition is in the College of Health and Human Sciences at CSU.