Good for Your Head, Good for Your Heart

This week’s blogpost is written by Dana Smith PhD, a health and science writer who communicates about the impact innovations in science and medicine have on people’s lives. Connect with her on Twitter: @smithdanag

It can feel overwhelming to navigate recommendations for healthy eating, especially if you’re managing a chronic condition. Are eggs a good source of protein or too high in cholesterol? Is red wine chock full of antioxidants or an unnecessary indulgence? Is sugar or fat the enemy?

Fortunately, there are a few tried and true tips that physicians agree upon, and these behaviors are backed by scientific research. And the really good news? The interventions are virtually identical regardless of whether you’re eating to improve your heart, head, kidneys, or pancreas.

Eating for a Healthy Mind

In a breakthrough study published earlier this year, researchers from UCLA and the Buck Institute for Research on Aging provided the first concrete evidence that behavioral changes can reverse memory loss and other symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.

The personalized interventions incorporated changes in diet, exercise, and sleep, such as:

  • Increase intake of fruit, vegetables, and fish
  • Cut processed foods and simple carbohydrates
  • Take vitamins
  • Exercise for a minimum of 30 minutes per day, 4 to 6 days per week
  • Meditate to reduce stress
  • Sleep 7 to 8 hours each night
  • Improve oral hygiene

After following the program, participants in the study—who were diagnosed with some degree of dementia, ranging from mild cognitive impairment to full-blown Alzheimer’s disease—experienced a remarkable improvement in cognitive function. Many were able to return to work, and one even saw an increase in brain volume.

Several participants also lost between 10 to 20 pounds during the course of the study. This type of weight loss is associated with other health benefits, like improvements in blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugars.

Different Disease, Same Diet

Many of the recommendations from the study are reminiscent of the MIND Diet—a modified hybrid of the Mediterranean and DASH diets that has been shown to lower the risk for Alzheimer’s disease by 53 percent. Both the Mediterranean and DASH diets are also associated with a decreased risk for cardiovascular disease. In fact, the American Heart Association, Mayo Clinic, and other organizations recommend a virtually identical list of behavioral modifications to improve heart health: eat more fruits and vegetables and less sugar and processed foods, exercise, sleep, reduce stress, and keep up with oral hygiene. And Cancer Research UK posted a similar set of guidelines, advocating for more fruits, vegetables, and fiber, and less red meat.

This overlap is no coincidence. These behaviors optimize health and help keep our bodies functioning properly, even after a diagnosis of a chronic illness.

Easier Said Than Done

However, many of these changes are easier said than done. In a press release for the UCLA-Buck dementia study, the researchers acknowledged that, “a downside to the program is its complexity.” In fact, none of the patients were able to stick to the entire protocol, and most of the burden for making these changes fell to the patients and caregivers.

Health coaching is one potential way to improve adherence to these types of behavioral interventions. By adapting a program to a patient’s lifestyle and home environment, and providing them with tips and ongoing supportto overcome setbacks, health coaches can help make these changes more sustainable.

There are no cures for dementia, heart failure, or diabetes, but simple changes in diet and exercise can dramatically improve health and stave off decline. While these changes are not always easy, clear and realistic guidelines paired with a dedicated support team can help patients form and stick to their new healthy habits.