How eating more plants can sustain your brain

“Another reason to keep your blood pressure down: It can lower your risk of dementia,” ran the Los Angeles Times headline in 2018.

The big news: In the SPRINT MIND trial, people with high blood pressure who were randomly assigned to reach a systolic blood pressure below 120 had a lower risk of mild cognitive impairment—which can lead to dementia—than people assigned to reach 140 systolic.

“What SPRINT has shown is that what is good for your heart is also good for your brain,” co-author Jeff Williamson, professor of gerontology and geriatric medicine at the Wake Forest School of Medicine, told the Times.

SPRINT MIND cut blood pressure in the below-120 group by an average of 18 points using multiple drugs. But in some people, a DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet can bring blood pressure into the normal range without drugs.

“In the DASH trial, a DASH diet lowered blood pressure by 11 points in people with hypertension,” says Frank Sacks, professor of cardiovascular disease prevention at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“That’s as effective as some drugs.”

A key component of DASH: fruits and vegetables.

“Fruits and vegetables are important foods to protect us against hypertension,” says Sacks. But they only accounted for half of the diet’s impact in the DASH trial.

“Eating fish and chicken instead of beef and pork, vegetable oils instead of butter, and more low-fat dairy accounted for the other half,” says Sacks.

Could lowering blood pressure with diet protect the brain as well as lowering pressure with drugs?

The MIND trial is looking at whether a DASH-like diet—tweaked to include more of some foods like berries, olive oil, and nuts—can slow cognitive decline.

But even if the diet only prevents strokes, that’s a plus. Tiny, often undetected strokes are the underlying cause of what scientists call vascular dementia, the second most common cause of memory loss.

“We’re hoping the MIND diet can prevent both Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia, but there’s more reason to be optimistic about vascular dementia,” says Sacks. “Many people with memory loss have both.”

Want more reasons to fill your plate with mostly plants? A plant-heavy diet can also help your heart, cut your risk of cancer, keep antibiotics working, and protect the planet.

Photo: zi3000/

The information in this post first appeared in the April 2020 issue of Nutrition Action Healthletter.

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