NIH Awards $4M to Study Potential of Healthy Diet to Lower Alzheimer’s Risk

Patricia Inacio, PhD avatar

by Patricia Inacio, PhD |

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diet and health

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) awarded a $4 million, five-year grant to a project that will investigate — among older residents of a multicultural New York neighborhood — the potential of a healthy and anti-inflammatory diet in lowering the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive decline.

Yasmin Mossavar-Rahmani, a nutrition scientist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, will lead the study.

“Because there are no effective treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, many scientists are focusing on behaviors that may reduce risk, such as exercise, stress management, and following a balanced diet,” Mossavar-Rahmani, an associate professor of clinical epidemiology and population health at Einstein, said in a press release. “Our aim is to study the effects of an appetizing, healthy diet known as the Multicultural Healthy Diet, that is easily accessible and that has the potential to improve brain function.”

Inflammation is a common factor in several diseases, including diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. Foods rich in fats and sugars that make up the so-called “Western diet” are known to promote inflammation.

Previous studies suggest that the Mediterranean and DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diets, alone or combined (in this case known as MIND diet), might slow cognitive decline and improve brain health.

These diets are rich in anti-inflammatory foods, such as green leafy vegetables, fish, and olive oil.

“A key aspect of the study is using the Multicultural Healthy Diet, which is built on a base of known anti-inflammatory foods, including whole grains, fish, lentils, nuts, beans, and herbs and spices,” Dr. Mossavar-Rahmani said. “Many of the foods in this diet are widely available and used in cuisines around the world, rather than emanating from one specific region.”

Researchers will recruit middle-age and older residents (ages 40 to 65) of  Co-op City, a large and ethnically diverse neighborhood in the Bronx, New York, and follow them for 27 months.

Of the total 300 people to be enrolled, about half will follow the Multicultural Healthy Diet and be trained in healthy food shopping and cooking. They will to keep a record of their food consumption and be closely monitored to help them to adhere to the diet.

They will also undergo cognitive function tests, playing brain games on smartphones, throughout the study.

The other half will follow a usual diet, but be given general health recommendations related to aging during in-person and phone sessions, and will also play similar if shorter brain health games.

Both groups will undergo blood test analyses and additional cognitive tests to determine how diet associates with cognitive function.

“The beauty of the study is that we’re assessing diet and cognition in real time rather than having participants travel to a clinic for every cognitive assessment,” said Mossavar-Rahmani. “And we’re looking at an ethnically diverse population of middle-aged and older people. Perhaps we’ll learn that we can change the course of cognitive decline with this diet or reduce risk for mild cognitive impairment that leads to Alzheimer’s disease.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that by 2050 Alzheimer’s will affect 14 million people — and that the costs of managing the disease are likely to reach $259 billion in the United States alone this year.