The thought of losing our cognitive function – dementia, Alzheimer's and all its associated pain and distress – is usually one of the most scary things when we think about getting older.
Most of us will have had this touch our lives as family members age. Dementia is a common disease in New Zealand, affecting around 70,000 people right now. By 2050 – when I'll be in the target age group – 170,000 of us will be living with it.
However, dementia is not an automatic, bad-luck-of-the-draw thing that happens to us when we get old. We can actually significantly reduce our risk and protect our brains when we're younger. And – you guessed it – how we eat plays a big part.
It's been known for a while that obesity, inactivity, Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure are things that increase the risk of Alzheimer's, the most common form of dementia.
An interesting recent review of the evidence, published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, also confirms a positive link between what they term "healthy dietary patterns" and better brain function in adults.
The authors were at pains to point out that – as with most diseases - there's no magic nutrient or supplement that promotes brain health. Spend that supplement money on healthy food, if you want to really protect your brain.
But the study authors also said it's clear that people who follow a healthy diet over time will have less cognitive decline, generally speaking, than those eating lots of processed food.
A Mediterranean-style diet was singled out.
To me this is not really a "diet" in the strict sense of the word, so much as a pattern of eating, which we know is also associated with lots of other health benefits.
We don't have to be living on a Greek island to do this (although that might also lower stress, another risk factor!). A Mediterranean-style diet is really just a pattern of food that includes lots of vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes and fruit, along with healthy fats (especially extra virgin olive oil). It includes moderate amounts of fish, chicken and dairy, and small amounts of red meat (say once a week). A plant-based diet, in other words – and you can include animal foods if you wish. It's the old story: food, not too much, mostly plants.
Here in New Zealand we have access to plant foods in abundance; our local vegetables and fruit are a great place to start on our plant-based, Mediterranean-style eating pattern. Remember the other plant foods too: the whole grains; the nuts and seeds; the beans and chickpeas and lentils. By the time we load up our trolleys and plates with all these, there's not much room for junky stuff.
This fits nicely with the advice given by Alzheimer's New Zealand about how to eat to lower your risk of dementia. The things that are good for our hearts, they say, are also good for our brains. Cutting the processed food which tends to be high in salt, sugar and saturated fat is a good idea. So is limiting alcohol – no matter what we might like to believe about red wine and health, most of us will be better off drinking less.
There's a link between inflammation and dementia/Alzheimer's, which makes sense. Chronic, low-grade inflammation in the body, (often alongside a specific gene carried by some people), increases the risk of developing the disease. That's also the case with other diseases too, including cancer, heart disease, arthritis and depression.
Anti-inflammatory foods, surprise surprise, also feature heavily in a Mediterranean-style diet. They include the high-antioxidant fruits and veges – think blueberries, cherries, tomatoes, leafy greens – along with the oily fish like salmon and sardines. Nuts and olive oil are also inflammation fighters.
That all sounds totally delicious, to me. And I think it's worth remembering that in our multicultural society, with all that offers us in terms of ingredients and cuisines, we can apply that "pattern of eating" thinking to encompass a wide range of flavours.
We don't have to limit our Mediterranean pattern to tomato-based chickpea soups, for example. A delicious vegetable and lentil dhal or curry would also fit this pattern. So would a miso-based soup with tofu, edamame, ginger and sesame; or a spicy stir-fry with crunchy greens, nuts and seafood. Imagine a beautiful steamed fish with Thai herbs; or a Vietnamese salad full of fragrant spices and colourful veges. There are so many ways you can go with this; it's a way of eating that inspires the imagination as it boosts the brain.