Can diet help keep you from losing your mind? This is the question I came home asking this week. For the third time in the past 5 weeks, I spent the weekend visiting my mother’s cousin and cleaning out her house. In another 5 weeks, we’ll celebrate her 99th birthday. This year’s celebration will be vastly different from last year’s or the year before. Last year, she hosted 20 friends and relatives in the sunroom of her long-term care facility. She knew everyone’s name and exhibited none of the anxiety that had begun to occasionally plague her.
This year, I’m not even inviting family to join us. In the past two or three months, I have observed a significant cognitive decline. Yesterday, we spent an hour getting a glass of juice, 5 bites of egg, three bites of toast, and a few sips of hot chocolate down her. There was no conversation. She simply didn’t have the language.
There were some repetitive interjections of, “Help me, help me, help me,” followed by “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.” These incidents have become common and often loud. Trying to find a medication that will quell her anxiety without making her sleep constantly is not a simple task. But we have to do something or she will not be able to stay where she is. I don’t know any other long-term care facility that smells like hot buttered rolls when you walk in, so having to move would be a shame.
It’s hard to know who will get dementia or what kind. Throughout her eighties, this particular cousin had outstanding recall of the answers in all Trivial Pursuit categories and maintained her extensive vocabulary. Her mother died with a clear mind at age 95. If I had been picking someone who would develop dementia, it wouldn’t have been her.
Many of you know how hard it is to watch a loved one sink into anxiety and incapacity. How sad it feels when they no longer know our names then eventually look at us with no glimmer of recognition. The coinciding physical decline is no easier to see. And I can’t even get my mind around what this must be like to experience.
Of course, we all want to avoid dementia. Some sources advise eating brain-healthy foods or following the MIND (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) diet to help stave it off. This advice seems to be based on short-term studies of brain sharpness and has been repeated on sites like mayoclinic.org and webmd.com.
On the surface, it sounds good, but it seems this will not be the final word. A European study of 8225 participants from 1991-2004 found diet quality assessed during midlife was not significantly associated with subsequent risk for dementia. There is an ongoing NIH study examining the effects of MIND diet on cognitive decline in seniors 65-84 without cognitive impairment who are overweight and have suboptimal diets. This study will end in 2021.
In the meantime, we’ll all have choices to make at many, many meals. Fresh, fresh, fresh without pesticides whenever possible is best! Plant-based processed foods are not as healthy as plain old vegetables and fruits. If you want to use the MIND diet as a guideline, choose green leafy vegetables at least 6 times per week plus other vegetables at least once per day. Make berries part of your meals twice a week. Eat fish at least once and poultry at least twice while limiting red meat to four times a week. Consume nuts at least five times a week. Include complex carbohydrates from whole grains. Use olive oil for cooking and limit butter and margarine to less than a tablespoon per day. Eat less than a serving of cheese and less than five pastries or sweets per week. Avoid fried and fast food and limit alcohol to one drink in a day. You can also download a MIND diet app.
If you’re already following a Mediterranean diet or the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet, there may be no need to alter what you’re doing. Some neuroscientists would encourage you to include chocolate, coffee, or tea and remind you to drink plenty of water.
It seems like there’s always conflicting information when it comes to the effects of specific dietary recommendations. When it comes to living a healthy life, I like to follow the word BALANCE…
B e sure to include variety
A void foods and chemicals to which you have an adverse reaction*
L imit prepackaged and processed food
A void fast food
N urture yourself with sleep, stillness, and vigorous activity
C reate a kind, inspiring lifestyle
E njoy your life
Will BALANCE help keep me from losing my mind? It remains to be seen, but it makes me feel good now and now is the only moment we know we have.
*allergy, sensitivity, autoimmune or inflammatory response