Many of those with family members suffering with dementia live in quiet fear of one day developing the disease themselves. But Steele Taylor, MD, neurologist and co-director of the University of Vermont Medical Center’s Memory Program, tells his patients to stop worrying and instead take action; he urges them to focus less on immutable risk factors, like genetics, and more on factors within their control.

“The brain changes that lead to Alzheimer’s are well in motion at least 10 to 15 years before the earliest symptoms appear,” explains Dr. Taylor. “Knowing that these lifestyle interventions exist and can delay or prevent the onset of serious health conditions…why wait?”

Good sleep habits, regular physical activity and a stimulating social environment have all been proven to help nourish the brain, says Dr. Taylor. Other lifestyle changes, like improved nutrition, can also prevent or postpone the onset of neurological conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, he says. 

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One diet in particular, the MIND diet (Mediterranean- Diet Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) has been designed to improve brain function and slow cognitive decline. The MIND diet combines principles from two plant-based diets: the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet (Dietary Approach to Systolic Hypertension). Anti-inflammatory and antioxidant foods protect the brain and reduce the plaques in the brain associated with Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, research shows the MIND diet reduced the risk of Alzheimer’s by 53 percent in study participants who closely followed the diet. Even those who only moderately followed the diet achieved a 35 percent reduction in risk. “Nobody needs to feel guilt, shame or failure if they aren’t strict about the MIND diet,” says Dr. Taylor, suggesting that it is still well worth the effort. 

The bottom line? Stop worrying and get out and enjoy life: Socialize, exercise, eat a Mediterranean-inspired diet and rest easy. It’s your best path to a healthy future.

Eat This, Not That

The MIND diet highlights nine foods to focus on and five foods to limit:

  • Green, leafy vegetables: Once per day
  • Whole grains: Three servings per day
  • Nuts: Five or more times per week
  • Beans: Three or more times per week
  • Berries: At least twice per week
  • Poultry: Twice per week 
  • Fish: At least once per week
  • Olive oil: Use in place of other fats for cooking
  • Wine: No more than one glass per day

Limit the following foods because they are high in saturated fat which leads to adverse effects on the brain, such as blood brain barrier dysfunction:

  • Butter/Margarine: Less than one tablespoon daily
  • Cheese: Less than one ounce per week
  • Red meat: No more than three servings per week
  • Fried food: Less than once per week
  • Pastries/Sweets: No more than four times per week

Healthy MIND Diet Recipes 

Mediterranean Barley Salad

Ingredients

  • 4 cups water
  • 1 cup barley, rinsed
  • 4 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
  • 2 lemons, juiced
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • ½ cup Kalamata olives, pitted and chopped
  • ¼ cup sun dried tomatoes, chopped
  • ½ English cucumber, medium diced
  • 1 cup flat leaf parsley, chopped

Instructions

  1. Bring water to a boil in a medium saucepan
  2. Add barley, 1 tablespoon olive oil and 1 teaspoon salt. Bring back to a boil. Adjust heat to maintain gentle simmer, cover and cook until tender, about 30 minutes.
  3. Remove from heat and let stand, covered, for 10 more minutes.
  4. Drain excess liquid if needed. Cool.
  5. In a large serving bowl, whisk the lemon juice, red wine vinegar, honey and the remaining ½ teaspoon salt.
  6. Gradually whisk in the remaining oil in a steady stream, to make a smooth dressing.
  7. Add cooled barley and the oregano, olives, tomatoes, cucumber and parsley. Toss, season and serve.

Spinach Feta Burgers

Yield: 4 burgers

Ingredients

  • 1 cup thawed frozen spinach
  • 1 pound lean ground turkey 
  • ½ cup crumbled feta cheese 
  • ½ teaspoon garlic powder 
  • ½ teaspoon dried oregano 
  • ¼ teaspoon salt 
  • ¼ teaspoon ground pepper 

Assembly

  • 4 small hamburger buns, preferably whole-wheat, split 
  • 4 tablespoons tzatziki 
  • 4 slices of tomatoes
  • 12 slices cucumber 
  • 8 thick rings red onion (about ¼-inch)

Instructions

  1. Preheat grill to medium-high. 
  2. Squeeze excess moisture from spinach. 
  3. Combine the spinach with turkey, feta, garlic powder, oregano, salt and pepper in a medium bowl; mix well. 
  4. Form into four 4-inch patties. Oil the grill rack (see Tip). Grill the patties until cooked through and no longer pink in the center, 4 to 6 minutes per side. 
  5. Assemble the burgers on the buns, topping each with 1 tablespoon tzatziki, 1 slice tomato, three cucumber slices and two onion rings. 

* To make ahead: Prepare patties, wrap individually and refrigerate for up to 8 hours.

* Tip: To oil a grill rack, oil a folded paper towel, hold it with tongs and rub it over the rack.

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