The foods you now eat can have an impact on your cognition down the road. And, according to the results of a new study, eating cheese and drinking red wine may actually give your brain a boost.
The study, which was published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, analyzed data over a 10-year period from 1,787 people between the ages of 46 and 77 in the U.K. Biobank, a large-scale biomedical database and research resource. The researchers specifically looked at participants’ fluid intelligence test (FIT) — which provides a snapshot of a person’s ability to think quickly — when they started the study and again in two follow-up assessments. Researchers also analyzed their diet and alcohol consumption over time.
The researchers found that certain foods and drinks seemed to have protective effects against cognitive decline. Specifically:
- Cheese was the most protective food against age-related cognitive decline, with researchers noting that eating the food “strongly predicted better FIT scores over time.”
- Drinking alcohol daily, especially red wine
- Eating lamb weekly (this was not true of other red meats)
- The researchers found that people with a high salt diet who had other risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease had decreasing performance over time. “We observed that added salt may put at-risk individuals at greater risk,” they wrote.
Study co-author Brandon Klinedinst, a neuroscience PhD candidate working in the Food Science and Human Nutrition department at Iowa State University, tells Yahoo Life that he and his team decided to study this “because it takes a new approach to nutrition and health by examining foods directly and collectively in a real-world context.” (Many other studies test the effects of one food at a time or lack a control group, he points out.)
Based on the food data, Klinedinst says the researchers were able to explain up to 15.6 percent of the variation in cognition over time. “But that’s considering we were only able to see what they were eating and drinking during this 10-year period,” he says. “If the 40-plus years of life prior to the study had recorded what they ate, I suspect even greater proportion would be explained.”
The findings are interesting, but experts — including Klinedinst — say you shouldn’t load up on wine and cheese just yet. “To draw a connection between cheese and memory is very tricky without really drilling down,” Dr. Amit Sachdev, medical director in the division of neuromuscular medicine at Michigan State University, tells Yahoo Life.
Klinedinst says that while his methods “are completely data-driven … we also only looked at one outcome.” And while the results were “supportive” of following a Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes eating plenty of vegetables, fruits, herbs, nuts, beans and whole grains, Klinedinst adds: “I wouldn’t personally tell someone to change their diet just based on this alone.”
Dr. Rawan Tarawneh, assistant professor of neurology at the Ohio State University, stresses that correlation does not equal causation. Meaning, the study doesn’t prove that eating wine and cheese lowers your risk of cognitive decline over time — just that this study found a link. “Associations are just that — they do not provide an understanding of how, and alone are not enough to indicate cause and effect,” she tells Yahoo Life.
“I would love to take this as a signal to go out and enjoy lots of wine and cheese, but I would hold off and not run so quickly to assume that those would reduce my risk of Alzheimer’s,” Dr. Scott Kaiser, a geriatrician and director of Geriatric Cognitive Health for Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Yahoo Life. “Nutritional science is very difficult, and it’s very hard to do to understand actual cause and effect from looking at something that’s based on subjective recall, like this study.”
It’s also tough to make blanket statements about different foods, Kaiser says, noting that there is a wide range of cheeses out there. “Not all cheese is the same,” he says. “It’s very hard to summarily say that cheese is good or bad when it comes to brain health.”
Liz Weinandy, a registered dietitian at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life that people should keep in mind that “this is just one study.” She points out that the MIND Diet, a research-based eating plan to help cognitive health, “shows that eating more cheese and foods high in saturated fat is linked to negative cognitive function over time.”
Overall, though, Sachdev says that diet and exercise “are the two most important things that a person should manage for body health and for brain health.” He adds, “Active people with good body weights are far more likely to retain good brain function, regardless of genetics.”
Tarawneh agrees that diet is important for cognitive health. “Diet influences the structure of our gut microbiome, which we now know influences the brain through the gut-microbiome axis,” she says. “Diet also affects our risk factors for vascular disease, including effects on cholesterol and blood sugar, and these can affect the health of brain vessels.”
As for the link with alcohol in this particular study, Sachdev urges caution. “All things should be consumed in moderation,” he says. Klinedinst agrees: “It’s also important that we aren’t sending the message that people should go out and get drunk for health benefits,” he says. “While it’s nice to know that modest red wine consumption could have benefits, we also acknowledge the extent of harm done from over-drinking.”
Weinandy also points out that “people can usually get the same benefits from wine as they do eating grapes and drinking grape juice. You don’t have to drink wine.”
And while it’s tempting to go all-in with the wine and cheese, Kaiser recommends against it. “Hold off on going around this holiday eating a lot of cheese and drinking red wine in an effort to boost cognitive health,” he says.