A new study found that Brits who consumed more cheese, alcohol, and lamb had less cognitive decline with age.

By Mike Pomranz
December 15, 2020
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Academic papers are often accused of having biases, but hey, readers have biases, too. No one really wants to hear that foods we don’t like are healthy. Peas are good for us? Let’s hide that study under the proverbial mashed potatoes. But booze is good for us? Stop the presses!

With that in mind, here’s a headline you’ve been waiting to see: In the battle against Alzheimer’s disease, cheese and red wine may be two of our biggest allies. But is it time to throw nightly pairing parties? Well, that’s still up in the air.

A study led by researchers at Iowa State University and published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease looked at “how diet is associated with long-term cognitive trajectories” by analyzing data collected from 1,787 British adults, ages 46 to 77, available through the UK Biobank—a massive collection of genetic and health information. The paper homed in on participants who had taken cognitive assessments and answered dietary questions. Iowa State University explained that the latter included “their intake of 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.”

Credit: Cavan Images/Getty Images

In the end, researchers said they had four big takeaways—and if you’re not into traditional “healthy” fare, you’re going to like what you hear: Cheese, alcohol, and lamb all proved beneficial, while salt was the only item flagged as problematic—and even then, only in certain situations.

“Cheese, by far, was shown to be the most protective food against age-related cognitive problems, even late into life,” Iowa State explained, listing the four findings. “The daily consumption of alcohol, particularly red wine, was related to improvements in cognitive function; weekly consumption of lamb, but not other red meats, was shown to improve long-term cognitive prowess; and excessive consumption of salt is bad, but only individuals already at risk for Alzheimer's Disease may need to watch their intake to avoid cognitive problems over time.”

Auriel Willette, the study’s principal investigator and an assistant professor in Food Science and Human Nutrition, seemed to admit that, despite what the data suggests, at this point it’s difficult to determine why booze, cheese, and lamb are all good for the brain. “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,” she said. However, she did hint at the possibility that these items were perhaps good for “dealing with an increasingly complex world that never seems to slow down.”

Meanwhile, fellow author Brandon Klinedinst—a Neuroscience Ph.D. candidate working in the Food Science and Human Nutrition department—offered a larger takeaway: That we shouldn’t overlook the effect diet can have on cognitive decline. “Depending on the genetic factors you carry, some individuals seem to be more protected from the effects of Alzheimer’s, while others seem to be at greater risk,” he stated. “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.”