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Study: Cheese & Cognition

I was recently interviewed by Prevention about a new study suggesting cheese may lower the risk of dementia. You can imagine the happy headlines for all the cheese lovers out there. I love cheese too, but take it from someone who read the entire study, don’t break out the cheese boards just yet. 

How can eating cheese, or dairy products in general, help reduce cognitive decline? 

Actually, we don’t have enough evidence to definitively say that dairy foods help reduce cognitive decline. The research is quite mixed on the topic. The study authors even acknowledge the inconsistency in research results. 

However, many dairy foods provide essential nutrients that can be part of a varied and balanced eating pattern. In fact, the DASH diet, which includes low-fat and nonfat dairy like yogurt, is associated with reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s dementia, though to a lesser degree than the Mediterranean and MIND diets. So, while we don’t know if it’s the dairy foods specifically that help, we know they can be a part of a brain-healthy diet.

What should readers take away from this study? Why are these results important? 

People should know that this study was a snapshot of a group of older adults at a moment in time, and as such it isn’t set up to prove cause and effect. 

Better cognitive function was associated with a more diverse diet with a wide variety of natural foods, including cheese. If anything, the take away from this study is the value of a varied and balanced diet for optimal brain health.

The significantly higher diet diversity score was based on their intake of fish, meat, eggs, soy foods, potatoes, fruit, seaweed, green and yellow vegetables, and fats and oils.

The results from this study are important because they provide clues about what should be studied further. The study raises more questions than it answers and that’s OK. That’s the scientific method. 

It hypothesizes that it’s possible cheese supports brain health, but right now we simply don’t have enough strong evidence to conclude that dairy foods reduce the risk of cognitive decline.

Interestingly, processed cheese was the most popular type of cheese eaten by people in this study, most of them were not eating cheese every day, and they also ate a variety of wholesome natural foods. This may be a factor of the study being conducted in Japan, and U.S. eating patterns and results might be different, which makes it difficult to generalize the results to an American audience.

Last but not least, while industry funding does not negate the results of the study, it’s important to know that this study was partially funded by the dairy industry in Japan.

In general, what are some ideal diets for optimizing brain health?

Research shows that the MIND diet and its component diets, the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet, are ideal eating patterns for optimizing brain health. These are all predominantly plant-based eating patterns that provide abundant antioxidants and anti-inflammatory nutrients that keep neurons thriving on a cellular level. Eating patterns that are designed to optimize brain health such as the MIND diet limit but don’t eliminate cheese. That means people can still enjoy small amounts from time to time within the scope of a brain-healthy diet. A brain-healthy diet will be based on leafy greens, a variety of additional vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans, berries and seafood.

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