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Study finds wine and cheese may help keep your mind sharp

Here’s what you need to know about how wine, cheese, lamb and other foods may help prevent cognitive decline.
Various types of cheese with wine on a white background
Wine and cheese may be a perfect pairing for brain health, according to researchers.TODAY Illustration / Getty Images

In possibly the best news since dark chocolate was deemed a health food, findings from a new study published last month in the Journal of Alzheimer’s disease suggest that wine and cheese may protect you from age-related memory problems. Before you uncork the Cabernet and whip up a cheese board, here’s what you need to know about how these and other foods influence your memory.

Wine, cheese and lamb may be beneficial

The latest study involved a pool of nearly 2,000 adults ranging from 46 to 77 years old who were tracked for 10 years. At baseline and twice during the study, they were given fluid intelligence tests that measure the ability to think on the spot and problem-solve effectively, capabilities that are impaired when you have dementia. Diminished fluid intelligence may also be a marker for Alzheimer’s disease.

Based on how often the participants said they were eating foods like cheese, wine, fruits, vegetables, grains and various forms of protein, scientists linked their eating habits to their cognitive abilities over the study period.

Researchers found that red wine and cheese, when consumed responsibly, both seemed to be protective against deteriorating memory and other thinking skills. The study also found that eating lamb once a week offered some benefit. (Other red meats did not.) On the other hand, the study revealed that eating too much salt, which mainly comes from heavily processed foods, fast foods and other restaurant meals, may lead to poorer cognitive performance as you age if you’re already at risk for Alzheimer’s disease.

There is a right way to drink wine

In this particular study population, people experienced cognitive improvements while drinking up to up to a bottle of red wine a day, Auriel Willette, an assistant professor in Food Science and Human Nutrition at Iowa State University and a principal investigator for the study, told TODAY in an email. “The individuals we observed benefitting from up to a bottle a day were probably drinking very modestly throughout the day and always with food,” he said.

Willette pointed out that having alcohol with a meal is important because food helps the wine (and other boozy beverages) stay in your stomach longer, which allows the alcohol to be absorbed more slowly. “We acknowledge the large number of deaths and hurt lives each year caused by drinking alcohol the 'wrong way,’” he noted.

Other studies have linked a daily glass of wine, in addition to a healthy eating pattern, to memory and other brain function improvements. However, as Willette alluded, more excessive drinking patterns are associated with other health problems, such as a higher risk of certain cancers and an increased likelihood of getting injured, whether from a car crash or a fall, or another form of injury. Drinking in excess of the suggested cutoff may harm the brain, and it can also lead to nutrient deficiencies associated with brain damage. And one mental health study has suggested that women who stop drinking alcohol may improve their well-being.

If you’re not already a drinker, experts caution against starting; however, if you do currently drink alcoholic beverages, consider making wine — especially red wine — your go-to choice, and always drink with or just after a meal.

Cheese may have protective compounds

While this study didn’t provide details about the type or amount of cheese associated with better brain performance, Willette explained that consuming cheese daily corresponded to the best cognitive function.

Though the mechanisms for cheese’s protective role remains unclear, other research has suggested that cheese is associated with lower rates of cognitive decline and better cognitive performance. One theory is that certain bioactive compounds in cheese lower damaging inflammation in the brain.

Dairy foods are also a staple of the DASH diet, which stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. High blood pressure has been linked with memory deficits and other mental impairments, so cheese might play its part by reducing the risk of this condition.

All of this is interesting news, but it’s important to remember that this study doesn’t show cause and effect, so until we know more, we can’t say that eating more cheese will help improve your brain power. On the other hand, there’s evidence that the way we tend to eat cheese, say, paired with crackers, melted over a burger, or atop a slice of pizza, may flood our bodies with unhealthful substances, like salt and refined grains. Studies suggest that foods with refined grains and saturated fat from red meat promote inflammation that may accelerate cognitive decline.

Lamb may be better than other red meats

“Ours may be the first study to show that consuming lamb may somehow be beneficial over other red meat consumption,” said Willette, adding: “In my opinion, eating meat is only beneficial if you remove most of the fat.” This point of view is in keeping with most variations on the Mediterranean diet. If you do eat lamb, cutting away any visible fat will ensure it’s as lean as possible. Generally speaking, however, higher intakes of red and processed meats have been linked with increased memory and thinking problems as you age.

Other foods have been shown to boost brain power, too

There’s no question that certain foods promote a sharper mind as you age. Scientists are still uncovering exactly how your diet influences brain functioning, but in general, foods that are high in antioxidants and inflammation-lowering compounds seem to be beneficial.

There is evidence that suggests following the MIND diet, a plant-focused eating plan that limits foods high in saturated fat and focuses on specific portions of whole grains, leafy greens (as well as other vegetables) and berries, may slow the rate of cognitive decline. In one study, people who followed this advice closely (compared to those who were less rigorous) had the cognitive skills of people more than seven years younger than them. The findings also revealed that even among those who followed the plan more casually, there were memory-protecting benefits. Additional research has linked the Mediterranean diet with lower rates of dementia and better cognitive functioning in older adults.

Here are some of the memory-boosting foods emphasized on these eating plans:

  • Whole grains. Recommended as part of both the Mediterranean and MIND diets, whole grains, like whole wheat, quinoa, brown rice and oats, may protect you from memory decline. In one study, whole grains were singled out for their association with higher-than-average cognition scores.
  • Blueberries. Numerous studies tie this antioxidant-rich fruit with memory improvements, particularly among those with mild cognitive impairment.
  • Leafy greens. Compared with adults who shun these veggies, those eating one to two servings of foods, like spinach and other leafy greens, daily, have been found to have the memory of people about 11 years younger.
  • Walnuts. In one study among adults ranging from 20 to 59 years old, those who consumed walnuts consistently performed better on tests measuring cognitive abilities, regardless of age, gender or ethnicity. Walnuts are also a staple of the Mediterranean diet.
  • Seafood. Fish and shellfish are eaten regularly on the Mediterranean diet — and the MIND diet recommends eating these foods at least weekly — likely, in part, because they’ve been found to lower the rate of memory decline.

Foods like these also happen to promote a lower risk of other diseases. So if you’d like, have a little red wine and cheese, and some lamb as often as once a week, but don’t give up on a diverse array of other nutritious options.