Eating Like This "Significantly Reduces" Dementia Risk, Study Finds

Bestselling author Max Lugavere weighs in on a seminal study.

While there's no one way to guarantee you won't develop dementia, research increasingly suggests that there are many ways to minimize your risk. One of the simplest things you can do is improve your diet, an intervention that scientists say can have a profound effect on both your physical and cognitive health. But what exactly should you eat, if cognitive health is a top priority? A comprehensive, two-year study has the answer. By following this neuroprotective diet, you may see major gains in brain processing speed and executive function. Read on to find out how your diet can help you reduce your dementia risk, and why it's never too late to make a change.

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There are "different roads" to dementia, one expert says.

man with dementia holding head
kazuma seki / Shutterstock

To understand how diet may influence dementia risk, Best Life reached out to Max Lugavere, author of the New York Times bestselling books Genius Foods and The Genius Life. He explained that one hurdle in reducing dementia risk is that every case is different.

"Dementia, like most complex, chronic, non-communicable diseases, is multifaceted… it's a multifactorial condition. And we don't actually know what causes dementia…" Lugavere explained. "There are probably different roads to dementia for each person."

However, the author was able to list what he considers some of the most common risk factors for dementia. These include exposure to environmental toxins, an overly sedentary lifestyle, poor sleep, and psychosocial factors such as untreated depression, loneliness, and stress. He also emphasized that your dietary decisions can greatly alter your dementia risk. "It's one of the major modifiable risk factors that we do have a degree of agency over," said Lugavere.

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Insulin resistance is closely linked with dementia.

Blood test diabetes

Lugavere also pointed out a surprising link between insulin resistance and dementia—a connection so significant that Alzheimer's disease is now sometimes referred to as "Type 3 diabetes."

"Type 1 diabetes is characterized by a deficit of insulin, usually due to the beta cells on the surface of the pancreas being destroyed by the host immune system. So it's an autoimmune condition," the author told Best Life. "Type 2 diabetes is characterized by insulin resistance, not due to a lack of insulin, but due to too much—and therefore, the cells of your muscle and liver become essentially intolerant to the physiological effects of insulin. Type 3 diabetes is what we're now using to describe Alzheimer's disease, because in the Alzheimer's-riddled brain, you see both lower levels of insulin and also insulin resistance."

In fact, Lugavere noted that 80 percent of people with Alzheimer's disease have insulin resistance, and that nine out of 10 adults have some degree of metabolic illness. "That puts you at higher risk for developing dementia," he explained.

Eating certain types of foods reduces dementia risk.

close up plate of salmon over rice and lentils with green beans

When it comes to brain-boosting dietary guidelines, Lugavere says he takes his cues from the FINGER study, which enrolled over 1,250 subjects between the ages of 60-77 to probe the effectiveness of lifestyle interventions on cognitive decline.

Though diet was just one of the interventions the study reviewed—exercise, heart health monitoring, social activity, and cognitive training were the others—the team determined that dietary improvements helped lower rates of dementia compared with the control group.

"The dietary intervention was very much like the diet I recommend in my books," Lugavere said, describing it as a "whole foods-centric diet that incorporates animal products, fish, in particular, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and extra virgin olive oil as the primary oil." He also recommended limiting "ultra-processed food," excessively added sugars, refined grains, and trans fats.

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It's never too late to make a change.

A portrait of happy senior couple in love indoors at home, cooking.

If you've been eating unhealthily for decades, Lugavere says it's not too late to gain the neuroprotective benefits of a healthier diet. In fact, he says meaningful change is "absolutely possible, no matter how young or old you are."

"What [the FINGER study has] shown is that even in older adults with at least one risk factor for developing dementia, a comprehensive diet and lifestyle intervention can not only significantly reduce the risk of developing dementia, so progressing to an actual dementia diagnosis, but can improve the way that these patients' brains work," said Lugavere. "They saw… a 150 percent improvement in processing speed in the brains of subjects on the intervention and an 83 percent improvement in executive function compared to controls."

The study also concluded that the intervention group had 25 percent improved overall cognition, 40 percent improved memory, and were 60 percent less likely to develop other diseases, compared with the control group.

Speak with a doctor or nutritionist to make a dietary plan that works for you.

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Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more