According to new research, the types of foods we eat have a direct impact on how well our brain ages. A study at Iowa State University, found data to indicate that moderate cheese eaters showed fewer age-related problems in their neural pathways, and that those who drank red wine over the span of the experiment, actually improved their cognitive abilities.
Now before we all start dancing and whooping at the thought of binging over Christmas using these findings as our excuse, the team at Iowa say it’s too early to tell whether this is because people who consumed red wine and cheese were more affluent or had healthier lifestyles to begin with, or whether compounds within the products are influencing our brain functions.
That being said, the study was considered to be large scale, including data from 1787 participants between the ages of 46 to 77, all of whom were volunteers in the UK. The subjects were part of the UK Biobank, a huge biomedical database of genetic and health information from half a million people.
Those who participated, also completed intelligence tests at the start of the study and twice more after set periods of time, over a number of years. Lead scientists, Auriel Willette and Brandon Klinedinst, claimed that these tests assessed an individual’s ability to think on the spot.
In addition to the intelligence tests, subjects completed questionnaires about their food and beverage intake, with specific questions regarding the frequency with which they consumed fresh fruit, dried fruit, salads, raw vegetables, oily or lean fish, processed meat, poultry, beef, lamb, pork, cheese, bread, cereal, tea, coffee, beer, cider, red wine, white wine, spirits or champagne.
With such an extensive list, the lay person might surmise that participants who indulged in higher quantities of red meats, high fat foods and alcohol, might show the greatest cognitive decline over the course of the study. Instead, the data suggests four surprising results.
The first was that cheese was the outstanding winner in protecting us against an aging brain, even in those volunteers at the upper end of the age range. The second was that moderate daily alcohol consumption, particularly red wine, seemed to aid cognitive function over time. Obviously, excessive drinking would have the reverse effect, not just on the brain, but on other organs too.
The third finding was that out of all the red meats, so long pilloried as being an unhealthy food option, lamb eaters showed an improvement in their intelligence tests. The fourth discovery is not so surprising. The team found that excessive use of salt increased cognitive decline, but predominantly in those already at risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease.
Willette and Klinedinst now hope to run randomised clinical trials to see if changes to diets can improve specific brain functions in a significant way.
The scientists came to the same conclusion that many of us have assumed for generations. What you put into your body is just as important to long-term health as how it is treated. Klinedinst said; “I believe the right food choices can prevent disease and cognitive decline altogether. Perhaps the silver bullet we’re looking for is upgrading how we eat.” This reinforces the basic tenet laid down by French lawyer, Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in 1826 when he announced, “Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es” or “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.”
The links between the human gut and the microbial activity within it are known to have a causal link with moods. Therese Limbana and colleagues of the California Institute of Behavioral Neurosciences and Psychology, has studied the links between gut microflora and mental health extensively, stating that foods which enhance positive gut microbes can have an active influence over patients suffering from depression. With more and more scientists investigating the gut-brain axis, it’s safe to assume that a poor diet will have negative consequences, not just on our physical health, but also on our levels of mental acuity and resilience.
What is particularly disturbing, is that poorer families can often only access cheap, high fat and sugar meals, often classed as junk food, while healthier options are too costly for their budgets. This is where governments should step in and place taxes on the junk to help supplement lower prices for the fresh fruit and vegetables needed to rear the next generation of intelligent, well-adjusted and fitter children.
Sadly, it’s unlikely to ever happen in any meaningful way while the massive multinational corporations are generating vast wealth pedalling junk to the masses, but on an individual level we can all make the right choices. Just a few simple alterations to our own diets could make all the difference to our cognitive abilities right into old age. I’m just thrilled that cheese can be counted among the safer options.