By DR. VICTOR S. SIERPINA

With increasing frequency, I have the unenviable task of informing a patient or their family members that they have dementia. Often, the patient themselves has not realized that they have problems other than occasional attention lapses, even though family members have observed major behavioral and memory problems.

Perhaps nothing creates so much anxiety among those of us who are growing older than the loss of our higher mental functions. The old term, senility, or even kindly tolerance of eccentric age-related forgetfulness has been overshadowed by the specter of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. These are among the leading causes of death in the elderly and contribute to loss of function, dignity as well as adding tremendous stress on families. I understand the challenges of these conditions from professional, personal, and family experiences.

Like most areas of medicine, prevention is the preferred way of approaching chronic problems. A recent study by Dr. Martha Morris of Rush University’s Internal Medicine and Nutrition departments in Chicago and published in the journal, Alzheimer’s and Dementia in March 2015, has garnered national media attention. Entitled “MIND Diet Associated with Reduced Incidence of Alzheimer’s disease,” this is one of the few prospective studies on neuroprotection and dementia prevention. In this study, the MIND diet was the active intervention in more than 900 participants 58 to 98 years old. The researchers followed these subjects for an average of 4.5 years and found that moderate adherence to the MIND diet may decrease Alzheimer’s disease risk.

What is the MIND diet and how could it be helpful? MIND, which stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay, is a hybrid of the Mediterranean diet and the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension diet, DASH diet. According to the study, “the MIND diet score emphasizes natural plant-based foods and limited intakes of animal and high saturated fat foods but uniquely specifies the consumption of berries and green leafy vegetables, nutritional sources found to be especially helpful in other studies of cognition. The MIND diet score was associated with a slower rate of cognitive decline equivalent to 7.5 years of younger age among the participants in the top third of MIND diet scores compared with the lowest third.”

The study compared the DASH diet, the Mediterran an diet, and the hybrid MIND diet. In case you are interested you got points, 1 point in each category for a maximum of 15, for the MIND diet as follows:

• Whole grains at least 3 servings a day

• Green leafy vegetables at least 6 times a week

• Other vegetable at least 1 a day (red-orange vegetables preferred)

• Berries at least twice a week

• Red meats and red meat products less than 4 times a week

• Fish at least once a week

• Poultry at least twice a week

• Beans at least three times a week

• Nuts at least 5 times a week

• Fast/fried food less than once a week

• Olive oil as your primary oil

• Butter, margarine less than 1 Tablespoon a day

• Cheese once a week or less

• Pastries and sweets less than 5 times a week

• Alcohol/wine once a day

Calculate your score, giving yourself one point for each item.

Those in the highest third of scores with a mean score of 9.6 points had a 53-percent reduction in risk of Alzheimer’s compared to the lowest third, who had a mean score of 5.6. The middle third, with a mean score of 7.5, had a 35-percent reduction compared to the lowest third. Not bad for a dietary intervention to prevent a really tragic disease.

How did you do?

By the way, the Mediterranean diet and DASH diet also showed improvements of 56 percent and 35 percent respectively in this study, but only for those in the highest third of scores. Previous studies found psychomotor improvement on the DASH diet to be improved compared to controls in as little as four months. Another study had shown that after 6.5 years, those on a Mediterranean diet had significantly higher cognitive scores compared to those on a control diet.

The specific difference, to sort all this out, between those two diets and the MIND diet was the recommendation to increase leafy greens and berries in the MIND diet. How hard could it be to start including those in your diet? Nuts, red-orange vegetables, and beans were other strongly endorsed choices.

So don’t give up just because you have a family history of dementia or feel you are slipping into increased forgetfulness. While we have yet to find a cure, brain health and prevention of degenerative neurological changes may simply be found in MIND-ing your diet.

Dr. Victor S. Sierpina is the WD and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine and Professor of Family Medicine at UTMB.