MIND Your Health: How the Mediterranean-Style MIND Diet Boosts Cardiac Function and Cognition
The heart and the brain are two of the organs most affected by age-related disorders — and their decline with age may have more in common with each other than once thought. Now known as the heart-brain axis, a dysfunction in either organ can negatively impact the other, as the cardiovascular and central nervous systems are complexly intertwined. With up to 75% of the 6.5 million American adults living with heart failure also experiencing cognitive decline to some degree, it’s imperative to find treatments that benefit both the brain and the heart. As an alternative or addition to pharmaceutical drugs, many patients may also turn to diet- and nutrition-based interventions — one of which is the MIND diet.
Pursuing the Power of Plants
Standing for ‘Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay,’ the MIND diet combines various aspects of two well-known styles of healthy eating, the Mediterranean diet and the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet.
The MIND diet emphasizes eating nine foods that have been shown to improve brain health and cognition with age. With a plant-forward focus, the MIND diet encourages eating leafy green vegetables, berries, fish, poultry, beans, nuts, whole grains, one daily serving of wine or alcohol, and olive oil. Additionally, the MIND diet discourages consuming red meat, fast or fried food, butter and margarine, pastries and sweets, and cheese. While the focus is on consuming six servings of green leafy vegetables per week, as research shows that regular consumption of these veggies slows cognitive decline by 11 years, it’s also recommended to eat one daily serving of other vegetables.
Originally designed to prevent dementia and cognitive decline, the MIND diet has also been shown to improve markers of cardiac function and metabolic health. One recent study, published in the British Journal of Nutrition and authored by Walker and colleagues, took a closer look at the link between heart failure — when the heart loses its ability to pump blood properly — and adherence to the MIND diet. As even slight changes to the heart’s size, structure, and function (known as cardiac remodeling) are associated with poor cognition, this research team aimed to determine if the MIND diet reduces the risk of heart failure — and, with it, lowers the chances of developing the pervasive cognitive decline that affects so many older adults.
MIND Over Matters of the Heart
In a group of about 2,500 older adults with an average age of 66 years, those who consumed a diet most similar to MIND had a lower incidence of risk factors related to poor cardiovascular health, including high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, and high BMI (Body Mass Index). They also looked at various parameters of the heart, including the mass, volume, and ability of the left ventricle to eject blood from the heart. The left ventricle is often used to measure heart health, as this is the chamber responsible for pumping oxygen-rich blood out to the other tissues in the body.
The research team found that people with the highest MIND scores — those whose dietary patterns most resembled MIND — had significantly fewer indications of cardiac remodeling and dysfunction, including measures of left ventricular function. One unexpected result was that women with higher MIND scores had greater measures of left ventricular mass (LVM), which is considered a risk factor for heart disease.
However, Walker and colleagues suggest that the other observed benefits to cardiac health outweigh the risks from the slight increase in ventricular mass. Additionally, the women did not see significant increases in left ventricular hypertrophy — when the left ventricle’s walls become so thick that adequate blood flow is prevented — which is considered a more serious condition than high LVM. With these results, the research team concludes, "Our findings highlight the importance of adherence to the MIND diet for better cardiovascular health and further reduce the burden of cardiovascular disease in the community."
Beneficial Boosts to the Brain and Longevity
In addition to improving heart health, the MIND diet has been studied for its role in slowing down cognitive decline and boosting brain health. In a 2015 study published in Alzheimer’s and Dementia, Morris and colleagues found that older adults who had the highest MIND diet scores had a 53% reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease compared to those with the lowest scores during the 4.5-year study. Similarly, Cherian and colleagues published a recent study looking at the effects of the MIND diet on cognition in stroke survivors. After six years of follow-up, people with the highest MIND scores had the lowest rates of cognitive decline and dementia — a condition that affects almost half of stroke survivors. The MIND diet was also significantly more beneficial to brain health than the Mediterranean or DASH diets on their own.
In addition to the MIND diet’s link to improved cognition, adhering to this style of eating may also increase lifespan. In a recent study of older adults, those who followed the MIND diet most closely had a 37% reduced risk of death during the 12-year study, compared to those with the lowest adherence.
One mechanism that might tie all of these benefits together is the MIND diet’s ability to reduce inflammation and oxidative stress, which occurs from excessive accumulation of highly reactive compounds that damage cells and DNA. These two factors are thought to play a role in aging and just about every age-related disease, including cognitive decline and heart failure. As the MIND diet is rich in antioxidants, it’s likely that this dietary pattern fights oxidative stress and inflammation, slowing down aging of the heart and brain.
Small Changes, Big Impacts
Although it may not be possible for everyone to adhere strictly to the MIND diet, the research is clear that consuming this plant-heavy, antioxidant-rich, and Mediterranean style of eating is beneficial to the brain and heart, especially in aging adults. Making minor changes may prove to be majorly impactful to your health and longevity, like switching out margarine for olive oil, adding in a handful of spinach to your morning omelet, or snacking on a cup of summer strawberries. Don’t mind if we do.
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Walker ME, O'Donnell AA, Himali JJ, et al. Associations of the Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay Diet with cardiac remodeling in the community: The Framingham Heart Study [published online ahead of print, 2021 Feb 23]. Br J Nutr. 2021;1-28. doi:10.1017/S0007114521000660