Good news – cheese, lamb and red wine delay cognitive decline

Food scientist Professor Auriel Willette and graduate research assistant Brandon Klinedinst
Food scientist Professor Auriel Willette and graduate research assistant Brandon Klinedinst

Just once in a while, dieticians come up with a trial results that appeals to my prejudices, and late last year a group of scientists based on Iowa State University, USA did just that.

The group led by graduate research assistant Brandon Klinedinst with food scientist Professor Auriel Willette examined the effect of 49 dietary components on problem solving skills of 1,787 British adults aged 46 to 77. The group consisted of slightly more males than females.

Participants completed a Fluid Intelligence Test (FIT) that measures problem-solving skills providing an in-time snapshot of an individual’s ability to think on the fly. It was applied as part of touchscreen questionnaire at baseline and two follow-up assessments over the next six years. 

They also completed a Food Frequency Questionnaire that estimated their intake of fresh fruit, dried fruit, raw vegetables and salad, cooked vegetables, oily fish, lean fish, processed meat, poultry, beef, lamb, pork, cheese, bread, cereal, tea and coffee, beer and cider, red wine, white wine and champagne, and hard liquor.

The four major findings of the study were: 

1. Cheese consumption was by far the most protective food against age-related cognitive problems, even late into life; 

2. Daily (but not weekly) consumption of alcohol, particularly red wine, was related to decreased rates of cognitive decline; however the study was not able to say how much daily alcohol was beneficial.

3. Weekly consumption of lamb, but not other red meats, also improved long-term cognitive ability; and 

4. Excessive consumption of salt is bad, especially for individuals with risk factors such as being a carrier of the APOE4 gene associated with early onset dementia or with a family history of dementia.

Trial participants with a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease or with a known risk of developing the disease failed to benefit from these dietary changes.

The researchers pointed out that this was an observational study and cannot prove a causative connection between diet and cognition.

Professor Willette said: “I was pleasantly surprised that our results suggest that responsibly eating cheese and drinking red wine daily are not just good for helping us cope with our current Covid-19 pandemic, but perhaps also dealing with an increasingly complex world that never seems to slow down.

“While we took into account whether this was just due to what well-off people eat and drink, randomised clinical trials are needed to determine if making easy changes in our diet could help our brains in significant ways.” 

Mr Klinedinst said some individuals seem to be more protected from the effects of Alzheimer’s, while other seem to be at greater risk due to genetic factors in their DNA.

“I believe the right food choices can prevent the disease and cognitive decline altogether. Perhaps the silver bullet we’re looking for is upgrading how we eat. 

“Knowing what that entails contributes to a better understanding of Alzheimer’s and putting this disease in a reverse trajectory,” he said.

The take-home message for older people is to eat cheese regularly and choose lamb over other red meats. If you do drink decide on a modest amount of red wine with your meals and reduce excessive salt intake.

The study was published in the November 2020 issue of the Journal of Alzheimer’s disease.

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Frank Smith was trained as an agricultural scientist in the UK, moving to WA in 1974 and shortly afterwards began lecturing at WAIT (now Curtin University) in soils and agronomy. In 1979 he joined the Agriculture Protection Board in charge of publications and media relations, studying part time for a degree in Journalism. In 1992 he spent a year as a visiting professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Later he ran a small publication company with his wife Mary-Helen. He then began freelance writing, editing and book indexing. He has written articles for more than 40 magazines in four continents and indexed more than 20 books. In 2007 he started writing for Have a Go News and gradually reduced his writing for other publications. He later took over the subediting, ensuring Have a Go News is consistent in style and highly readable. He and Mary-Helen live in a passive solar home in the Perth Hills with a varying collection of quendas and native birds.