People who followed the diet rich in vegetables, legumes and healthy fats developed the nervous system disorder by up to 17.4 years later than others.

For the first time, researchers have identified a link between the Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) diet and a later onset of Parkinson’s disease.

“We were really astonished by the results that we saw,” says DMCBH member and Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute scientist, Dr. Silke Appel-Cresswell, who led the study published in the journal Movement Disorders.

“People who adhered more closely to the MIND diet had a large magnitude of difference in the delay of disease onset.”

The MIND diet—established in 2015 by Dr. Martha Clare Morris—involves consuming more leafy greens and other vegetables, berries, beans, whole grains, nuts, poultry and fish, along with using olive oil as the main cooking oil. It promotes minimizing the consumption of sweets, fried and processed foods. It also recommends limiting intake of high-fat dairy products such as butter and cheese.

MIND builds on a combination of the Mediterranean (MeDi) diet, which reflects the traditional meals prepared by Mediterranean cultures, and the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet designed to reduce or prevent high blood pressure.

Appel-Cresswell’s study included 167 participants with Parkinson’s disease who averaged around 64.9 years of age and had begun experiencing symptoms of Parkinson’s—such as tremors, slowed movements and changes in speech—approximately 6.5 years prior to the start of the study. One hundred and nineteen healthy controls also participated.

All participants filled out a detailed questionnaire about their daily food intake over the course of a year. Participants were scored by the number of servings they consumed per MIND-related food group.

They were also categorized by whether or not their diet aligned more with either the original MeDi (OMeDi) diet—which the study states is “characterized in part by its antioxidant-rich mix of vegetables, whole grains and reduced red meat/dairy”—or Greek MeDi (GMeDi) diet, which “also promotes potato intake and limits poultry consumption.”

“We need to talk about the important health benefits of eating nutritious, whole foods to the same degree that we do wearing seatbelts and not smoking.”

Tabulated results showed that women were more likely than men to follow the MIND diet, which might contribute to the fact that Parkinson’s disease is more common among men, says Appel-Cresswell.

Researchers divided the Parkinson’s group into thirds according to diet adherence, and then compared the highest and lowest adherence groups separately for men and women. High adherence corresponded with a later onset of Parkinson’s disease in women of between 15.6 to 17.4 years. Men who scored higher on the MIND diet were found to have a later onset of between 3.6 and 7.4 years compared to those with low scores.

High-scoring adherence to the GMeDi diet in women with Parkinson’s had a delayed onset of up to 9.8 years, and men up to 8.4 years. High OMeDi adherence also correlated with a lower incidence of cardiovascular disease and higher exercise scores for both men and women with Parkinson’s.

“For women, it can make a big difference on a personal and societal level if someone gets Parkinson’s in their early 70s compared to their late-50s when they are still at work,” says Appel-Cresswell.

Appel-Cresswell stresses that the correlation between diet and age of onset of Parkinson’s identified in her study does not prove a causal link between the two.

“Dedicated studies testing dietary approaches in Parkinson’s disease are urgently needed,” she says. “In the meantime, a healthy diet has many other already proven health benefits without any significant downsides. As a clinician, I encourage my patients to eat according to the principles of the Mediterranean and MIND diets.”

A food culture shift may be just what the doctor ordered

Over 100,000 Canadians are living with Parkinson’s—about 60 per cent of whom are male. Parkinson Canada also notes that approximately 25 new cases are diagnosed every day.

As our population continues to age, a Public Health Agency of Canada report projects that number could increase to 163,700 by 2031.

Apart from Appel-Cresswell’s recent findings, exercise, ibuprofen and coffee have also been associated with a lowered risk of developing Parkinson’s. However, there remains no cure for the condition, and no medication available to slow it, Appel-Cresswell states.

Prior research has associated adherence to the MIND diet with a reduction in the development of Alzheimer’s disease, which impairs memory and cognition. Appel-Cresswell’s findings are yet another indicator of the important role diet can play in disease prevention and health promotion.

“These results point to a need for a culture change as to the consumption of highly processed foods and lifestyles that often make us prefer food that is quickly accessible,” says Appel-Cresswell. “We need to look at the longer-term implications of the foods we eat.”

Dr. Silke Appel-Cresswell is a movement disorder neurologist, clinician scientist and associate professor at the Vancouver Coastal Health Movement Disorders Clinic/Pacific Parkinson’s Research Centre in the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health at the University of British Columbia.

This story was originally published on the Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute’s website.