Can The DASH Diet Improve Cognitive Health?
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The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet is an eating plan derived from the traditional Mediterranean diet aimed at reducing high blood pressure. It emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and low-fat dairy while limiting sodium, sweets, and red meat. This diet aims to promote heart health and overall well-being by encouraging nutrient-rich choices.
A recent study on the DASH diet analyzed its impact on cognitive health, specifically when the diet is followed in middle age. Data from over 5000 women was collected through dietary questionnaires and analyzed using a “DASH score” in which high intakes of fruits (including fruit juices), vegetables (excluding potatoes), legumes and nuts, low-fat dairy, and grains and low intake of red meat, sodium, and sweets ranked highest.
Participants also answered a series of yes/no questions in order to assess subjective cognitive complaints (SCCs). Questions included whether participants had difficulty remembering a short list of items or difficulty understanding or following spoken instructions.
“…women in their mid-40s who followed a DASH style diet had lower incidences of SCCs in their late 70s.”
Results found that women in their mid-40s who followed a DASH style diet had lower incidences of SCCs in their late 70s. Those with greater adherence to the DASH diet had approximately 20% lower odds of having 2 or more subjective cognitive complaints later in life.
While the DASH diet may in fact have cognitive health benefits, it is possible that certain characteristics of the diet have health promoting benefits apart from the specific diet itself. For example, a diet that reduces the intake of sodium and sweets will inevitably reduce the intake of ultra-processed foods, as these products tend to contain large amounts of sodium and added sugars.
“…those who consumed more ultra-processed foods showed slightly more cognitive decline compared to those who ate little or no ultra-processed foods.”
Soda has been linked with numerous cognitive health impacts, and given that a 12 oz can of Coca-Cola contains 39 grams of sugar, it would not adhere to the guidelines of the DASH diet. Ultra-processed foods such as potato chips, premade frozen meals and pretzels tend to be high in sodium and therefore would also not adhere to the DASH diet. These foods also tend to be high in refined carbohydrates and food additives. A 2022 study found that those who consumed more ultra-processed foods showed slightly more cognitive decline compared to those who ate little or no ultra-processed foods.
Additionally, a history of depression medication was also statistically significant for those who indicated higher rates of subjective cognitive complaints, suggesting that mental health and medications may also be a factor in determining cognitive health outcomes.
“…emphasizing a diet made up of nutrient dense whole foods and limiting the consumption of ultra-processed foods has numerous health benefits.”
Overall, this study supports the findings that emphasizing a diet made up of nutrient dense whole foods and limiting the consumption of ultra-processed foods has numerous health benefits. A low quality diet, such as the Standard American Diet, can promote chronic systemic immune activation. As many of the current modern chronic illnesses have been linked with increased rates of systemic immune activation, it is no surprise that a balanced diet based on the principles of the traditional Mediterranean diet has a positive impact on whole body health including metabolic health, cognitive health and heart health.