Dietary Patterns, Fats and Healthy Brain Aging
Posted by , MS, RD, CDE

As the population ages, we registered dietitian nutritionists (RDNs) increasingly meet with middle aged and older clients interested in living well for decades to come. Not only does this include physical health and well-being, but brain health and cognitive functioning as well.

Researchers and healthcare professionals often say that what’s good for the heart is good for the brain. Indeed both a Mediterranean-style diet and the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet – both known for their heart health benefits – are linked with less cognitive decline in older adults.[i] After reviewing the literature to identify foods and nutrients providing neuroprotection and dementia prevention, researchers developed a hybrid of the Mediterranean and DASH diets. They appropriately call the new dietary pattern the MIND diet. MIND stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay.

A Mediterranean-style diet emphasizes fish, fruits, vegetables and olive oil. DASH is a low fat, low sodium pattern that emphasizes fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy foods. Martha Claire Morris, PhD, a nutritional epidemiologist at Rush University, and her colleagues created the MIND diet to consist of 10 brain-healthy foods and 5 unhealthful foods to avoid.

MIND Diet Summary[ii]

Brain-Healthy Foods Foods to Avoid
Green leafy vegetables

> 6 servings weekly

Red meats
Other vegetables

> 1 serving daily

Butter and stick margarine

> 5 servings weekly


> 2 servings weekly

Pastries and sweets

> 3 meals weekly

Fried or fast food
Whole Grains

> 3 servings daily


> 1 meal weekly

Poultry, not fried

> 2 servings weekly

Olive oil

Primary cooking oil


1 glass daily

When Morris and colleagues used a scoring system to assess the preventive effects of the MIND diet on incident Alzheimer’s disease, they found that closely following the dietary pattern reduced the risk of developing the debilitating brain disease by 53 percent. Moderately following the diet lowered the risk by 35 percent, which should be a comfort to those who find strict adherence difficult.[iii] In other research, Morris et al noted that the MIND diet demonstrated greater effects on slowing cognitive decline than either the Mediterranean diet or the DASH diet.[iv]

Do Dietary Fats Play a Role?

Each of the studied diets emphasizes eating patterns with only some emphasis on specific nutrients. When it comes to fats, all three patterns recommend foods low in saturated and trans fats. Both the Mediterranean and MIND diets include foods rich in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids, including nuts, fish and olive oil. Additional research finds that fish and long chain omega-3 fatty acids found in fish are protective of cognitive decline.[v] The intake of ALA, the short chain omega-3 fatty acid found in canola oil, walnuts and other plants, is associated with slower decline in global cognitive function and memory among adults in the Netherlands.[vi] Finally, the consumption of monounsaturated fats, like those in canola and olive oils, was linked to better global cognition and verbal memory abilities, whereas saturated fats were associated with worsening abilities among older women.[vii]

Bottom line: Research will continue to unravel the connection between healthful eating and aging well with one’s cognitive abilities intact. We will learn more about specific nutrients, foods and overall dietary patterns. For now, RDNs can be comfortable recommending any of these three wholesome dietary patterns with emphasis on plant foods, fish, vegetables and foods low saturated and trans fats.