A recent study conducted by researchers from NYU Grossman School of Medicine has shown that women who followed blood pressure-lowering diets in their middle years were approximately 17% less likely to experience memory loss and other signs of cognitive decline later in life. This finding has significant implications, particularly since women make up over two-thirds of those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia. Given that the number of Americans over the age of 65 is expected to more than double by 2060, these results are particularly relevant.
The diet in question is the ‘Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension,’ or DASH diet, which encourages a high consumption of plant-based foods rich in potassium, calcium, and magnesium, while limiting saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, and sugar. Previous research has consistently shown that high blood pressure, especially in midlife, is a risk factor for cognitive decline and dementia.
To arrive at these conclusions, the researchers examined data from 5,116 out of more than 14,000 women participating in the NYU Women’s Health Study, one of the longest-running studies investigating the impact of lifestyle and other factors on the development of common cancers and chronic conditions in women. The study participants’ diets were assessed through questionnaires administered between 1985 and 1991, when they were an average of 49 years old.
“Subjective complaints about daily cognitive performance are early predictors of more serious neurocognitive disorders such as Alzheimer’s,” stated Yu Chen, PhD, MPH, professor in the Department of Population Health and senior author of the study. “With more than 30 years follow-up, we found that the stronger the adherence to a DASH diet in midlife, the less likely women are to report cognitive issues much later in life.”
The participants were then tracked for more than 30 years, with an average age of 79 at the time of assessment. They were asked to report any cognitive complaints, and those who did not return questionnaires were contacted by phone. Cognitive complaints were measured using six validated standard questions, which are indicative of mild cognitive impairment that can lead to dementia. These questions addressed difficulties in remembering recent events or shopping lists, understanding spoken instructions or group conversations, and navigating familiar streets.
Among these six cognitive complaints, 33% of women reported experiencing more than one. However, women who adhered closely to the DASH diet demonstrated a 17% reduction in the odds of reporting multiple cognitive complaints. These findings highlight the potential benefits of adopting the DASH diet in midlife to improve cognitive function later in life, especially for women, who are disproportionately affected by Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
“Our data suggest that it is important to start a healthy diet in midlife to prevent cognitive impairment in older age”, stated Yixiao Song, a lead author of the study.
“Following the DASH diet may not only prevent high blood pressure but also cognitive issues,” stated Fen Wu, PhD, a senior associate research scientist who co-led the study.
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