How a diet of red wine and cheese can help improve cognitive function and potentially avoid Alzheimer’s Disease later in life

The foods we eat may have a direct impact on our cognitive acuity in our later years. This is the key finding of an Iowa State University research study spotlighted in an article published in the November 2020 issue of the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. 

The study was spearheaded by principal investigator, Auriel Willette, an assistant professor in Food Science and Human Nutrition, and Brandon Klinedinst, a Neuroscience PhD candidate working in the Food Science and Human Nutrition department at Iowa State. The study is a first-of-its-kind large scale analysis that connects specific foods to later-in-life cognitive acuity. 

Willette, Klinedinst and their team analysed data collected from 1,787 aging adults (from 46 to 77 years of age, at the completion of the study) in the United Kingdom through the UK Biobank, a large-scale biomedical database and research resource containing in-depth genetic and health information from half-a-million UK participants. The database is globally accessible to approved researchers undertaking vital research into the world’s most common and life-threatening diseases. 

Participants completed a Fluid Intelligence Test (FIT) as part of touchscreen questionnaire at baseline (compiled between 2006 and 2010) and then in two follow-up assessments (conducted from 2012 through 2013 and again between 2015 and 2016). The FIT analysis provides an in-time snapshot of an individual’s ability to “think on the fly.” 

Participants also answered questions about their food and alcohol consumption at baseline and through two follow-up assessments. The Food Frequency Questionnaire asked participants about 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 liquor. 

Here are four of the most significant findings from the study: 

  1. Cheese, by far, was shown to be the most protective food against age-related cognitive problems, even late into life; 
  2. The daily consumption of alcohol, particularly red wine, was related to improvements in cognitive function; 
  3. Weekly consumption of lamb, but not other red meats, was shown to improve long-term cognitive prowess; and 
  4. Excessive consumption of salt is bad, but only individuals already at risk for Alzheimer’s Disease may need to watch their intake to avoid cognitive problems over time. 

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

Klinedinst added, “Depending on the genetic factors you carry, some individuals seem to be more protected from the effects of Alzheimers, while others seem to be at greater risk. That said, 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.” 

Willette and Klinedinst acknowledge the valuable contributions of the other members of the research team: Scott Le, Colleen Pappas, Nathan Hoth, Amy Pollpeter and Qian Wang in the Iowa State Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition; Brittany Larsen, Neuroscience graduate program at Iowa State; Yueying Wang and Li Wang, Department of Statistics at Iowa State; Shan Yu, Department of Statistics, University of Virginia; Karin Allenspach, department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences at Iowa State; Jonathan Mochel, department of Biomedical Sciences at Iowa State; and David Bennett, Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center, Rush Medical Center, Rush University. 

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