Eat Your Way To A Better Memory
By: Sandra Darling, DO, MPH • Posted on April 12, 2022
Memory loss and cognitive decline
If you are worried about your memory, I have good news for you. One simple dietary change may improve your memory and prevent further cognitive decline.
Memory impairment typically occurs gradually over years or decades and is more influenced by environmental and lifestyle factors than genetics. Dementia is often preceded by two progressive stages that are often overlooked or considered part of normal aging:
- Subjective Cognitive Impairment
- Mild Cognitive Impairment
The Montreal Cognitive Assessment
When I evaluate patients with memory loss, I use the Montreal Cognitive Assessment (MOCA) to quickly assess memory and other brain functions. MOCA provides a composite score (0-30) with ≥26 considered normal. Based on medical history and MOCA score, the diagnosis may be one of the following:
- Subjective Cognitive Impairment (SCI)
- Normal MOCA (26-30)
- Occasional memory lapses
- Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI)
- Abnormal MOCA (19-25)
- Frequent memory lapses
- Mild Alzheimer’s Disease/Dementia
- Abnormal MOCA (11-21)
- Cognitive impairment/memory loss
- Assistance needed for daily activities
SCI and MCI can occur at any age and can progress at different rates. I have seen patients with SCI in their late 80s and patients who are decades younger with MCI often because of a traumatic brain injury.
MCI can progress to dementia. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia and mostly affects older adults. The risk of Alzheimer’s doubles every 5 years after age 65. Women have a greater risk of developing Alzheimer's than men. At age 65, 1 in 6 women are at risk compared to 1 in 11 men.
What causes cognitive impairment?
An unhealthy lifestyle is a contributing factor to cognitive impairment, which includes being sedentary, smoking and consuming excess sugar, salt, fat, and alcohol.
The Lancet Commission 2020 Report¹ on dementia prevention has identified 12 modifiable risk factors of dementia that together account for 40 percent of dementias worldwide.
12 modifiable risk factors of dementia
- Less education
- Hearing impairment
- Excess alcohol
- Physical inactivity
- Social isolation
- Traumatic brain injury
- Air pollution
How can we prevent dementia?
These modifiable risk factors are opportunities for prevention! Healthy behaviors like exercising and limiting alcohol can protect against cognitive decline, allowing your brain to stay sharp as long as possible.
The foods we eat (and do not eat) are of upmost importance for brain health. The MIND Diet, a diet designed to prevent dementia, is based on unprocessed plant foods – fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds and whole grains. In one study, adults that closely followed the MIND Diet for 4.5 years decreased their risk of Alzheimer’s by 53 percent!2
What is the best food for the brain?
There is no ONE food – the brain needs a variety of foods for a variety of nutrients – but dark leafy greens like kale, spinach and arugula are at the top of the list.
Researchers wanted to know if dark leafy greens could affect cognition in older adults. What they found is really exciting! After 5 years, those who ate the highest amount of dark leafy greens per day had greater cognitive function – the equivalent of being 11 years younger - compared to those who ate almost no leafy greens.3 These positive results occurred with only 1-2 servings of leafy greens per day.
Brain Health and Wellness at the Cleveland Clinic
At the Cleveland Clinic Center for Integrative and Lifestyle Medicine, we will perform a cognitive assessment and comprehensive lifestyle evaluation to identify any modifiable risk factors of dementia, followed by a personalized treatment plan. Please call 216-448-4325 (option 4) to schedule an appointment.
Be Strong, Be Healthy, Be in Charge!
-Sandra Darling, DO, MPH
- Livingston G, Huntley J, Sommerlad A, et al. Dementia prevention, intervention, and care: 2020 report of the Lancet Commission. Lancet. 2020;396(10248):413-446. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(20)30367-6
- Morris MC, Tangney CC, Wang Y, Sacks FM, Bennett DA, Aggarwal NT. MIND diet associated with reduced incidence of Alzheimer's disease. Alzheimers Dement. 2015;11(9):1007-1014. doi:10.1016/j.jalz.2014.11.009
- Morris MC, Wang Y, Barnes LL, Bennett DA, Dawson-Hughes B, Booth SL. Nutrients and bioactives in green leafy vegetables and cognitive decline: Prospective study. Neurology. 2018 Jan 16;90(3):e214-e222. doi: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000004815. Epub 2017 Dec 20. PMID: 29263222; PMCID: PMC5772164.
Sandra Darling, DO, MPH
Dr. Sandra Darling is a physician in the Center for Integrative and Lifestyle Medicine and is board certified in Preventive Medicine and Public Health and Lifestyle Medicine. She is dedicated to helping her patients achieve better physical, mental, and emotional health through nutrition, physical activity, sleep, and relaxation practices. In her medical practice, she prescribes lifestyle medicine to prevent and treat chronic conditions including hypertension, diabetes, and obesity. She has a special interest in brain health and facilitates the Brain Health and Wellness SMA to improve memory and reduce the risk of dementia.
Dr. Darling graduated from Touro University California osteopathic medical school and completed residency at the Florida Department of Health. Prior to medical school, she worked in the field of architecture and design. She changed careers later in life after she had a profound experience treating her own longstanding health issues primarily by altering her diet. Dr. Darling is passionate about good food and guiding others in making healthful food choices to promote healing. She and the Executive Chef at the Center co-facilitate the Culinary Medicine for Chronic Disease SMA.
- Stress and Memory Lapses
- Memory Basics: Paying Attention Matters
- Memory Loss in Women: Is It Age or Menopause?
- The MIND Diet
- Does Increased Activity Decrease the Risk of Dementia?
- Memory Lapses When you are Busy, Busy, Busy
- When Memory is Normal and Not-So-Normal
- Do You Want to Vary Your Memory Fitness Routine?