To stay sharp longer, eat a healthy diet now.

Written By Mark

A new study has revealed strong links between the quality of a person’s diet and their cognitive ability over the course of their life. The study used data collected from more than 3,000 people who were followed for nearly seven decades.

The study was conducted by researchers from Tufts University in the United States, and its results were announced at the annual meeting of the American Society for Nutrition in Chicago, USA, held between June 29 and July 2. The EurekAlert website wrote about it.

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When does cognitive performance begin to decline?

Cognitive functioning is the mental work or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses, and includes various aspects of higher-level intellectual functions and processes such as attention, memory, perception, decision-making, planning, reasoning, judgment, understanding, language, visual-spatial function, and others.

Cognitive performance, or the ability to think, can continue to improve until middle age, but it typically begins to decline after age 65. In addition to the cognitive decline associated with aging, more serious conditions such as dementia can also develop.

Researchers say that eating a healthy diet (one rich in plant foods that contain high levels of antioxidants and monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats) can support brain health by reducing oxidative stress and improving blood flow to the brain.

Diet Tracking Seven Decades

The research adds to a growing body of evidence that eating a healthy diet can help prevent Alzheimer’s disease and age-related cognitive decline. While most previous research on the topic has focused on the eating habits of people in their 60s and 70s, the new study is the first to track diet and cognitive ability across the lifespan — from ages 4 to 70.

In the new research, scientists used data from 3,059 people in the UK who were registered as children in a study called the National Survey of Health and Development. Members of the group, called the 1946 British Birth Cohort, provided data on dietary intake, cognitive outcomes and other factors via questionnaires and tests over more than 75 years.


Analyzing participants’ dietary intake at five time points and comparing it to their cognitive ability at seven time points, the researchers found that diet quality was strongly associated with cognitive ability. For example, only about 8 percent of those who followed an unhealthy diet maintained high cognitive ability, while only about 7 percent of those who followed a healthy diet experienced lower cognitive ability over time compared to their peers.

While most people see steady improvements in the quality of their diets throughout adulthood, the researchers note that subtle differences in childhood diet quality may shape an individual’s eating patterns later in life—for better or worse. “This suggests that dietary intake in early life may influence our dietary decisions later in life, and the cumulative effects of diet are linked to cognitive development,” said Kelly Carra, Ph.D., of the Gerald G. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University.

To assess diet quality, the researchers used the 2020 Healthy Eating Index, which measures how well a person’s diet meets the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Participants who maintained higher cognitive abilities over time compared to their peers tended to eat more recommended foods like vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains, and less sodium, added sugars, and refined grains.