Finally, good news: Cheese is good for our brain

Study finds specific foods may be key to staving off brain diseases like Alzheimer's.

Dave Yasvinski 3 minute read December 23, 2020
little girl looking through hole in cheese

Cheese, red wine and lamb may be key foods to help prevent brain disease. GETTY

This holiday season, be sure to raise a glass to the group researchers who just found more evidence that the daily consumption of alcohol — particularly red wine — is good for you.

The study, conducted at Iowa State University, is the first large-scale analysis of its kind to connect specific foods to improved cognitive acuity later in life. Aside from the lifelong benefits this grocery list of items provides, its contents may also help drown the sorrows of anyone who has had their holiday hopes cancelled by COVID-19.

Using data from the UK Biobank — a large database containing the genetic and health profiles of more than half a million people — researchers discovered that cheese offered the most protection against cognitive problems, even in older patients. They also found the daily consumption of alcohol, particularly red wine, pairs well with improved cognitive function as does the weekly consumption of lamb — but not other red meats. Excessive salt consumption was worrying trend, but researchers noted that only those already at risk for Alzheimer’s disease may need to dial back their intake to avoid cognitive issues later in life.

“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,” said Auriel Willette, the study’s principal investigator and an assistant professor of food science and human nutrition. “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.”

The researchers arrived at their findings by poring over the Biobank data of 1,787 aging adults and then subjecting participants to multiple Fluid Intelligence Tests over a period of 10 years. These tests assessed the ability of subjects to “think on the fly.” They were also asked to answer questions on their food intake at multiple points during the same period. The items on this questionnaire included 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.

“Depending on the genetic factors you carry, some individuals seem to be more protected from the effects of Alzheimer’s, while other seem to be at greater risk,” said Brandon Klinedinst, a neuroscience PhD candidate working in the food science and human nutrition department at Iowa State. “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.”

Alzheimer’s disease, the most common cause of dementia, is a degenerative condition that is believed to be the result of the accumulation of certain proteins in the brain that leads to the slow death of neurons. This process eventually produces symptoms of memory loss, difficulty thinking or problem solving and changes in mood and behaviour.

There are over 500,000 Canadians living with dementia today  with another 25,000 diagnosed with the progressive disease every year, according to the Alzheimer Society. Two-thirds of those diagnosed over the age of 65 are women. With the rate at which the disease is growing, it costs over $12-billion a year to care for patients.

Dave Yasvinski is a writer with

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