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Lifestyle keys to cutting dementia risk

You may have seen some recent press around a book (‘Grain Brain’) written by a US neurologist with the claim that eating grains (and most carbohydrate foods in general) are a major culprit in causing dementia, depression, ADHD and headaches.

What the book boils down to is yet another variation of a high-fat, low-carbohydrate, gluten-free, saturated fat and high cholesterol diet. Its advice on cutting back on sugar and processed foods, which is supported by just about any dietary recommendation from peak health bodies for all major chronic diseases, is the one positive to come out of it.

The claims made in the book (and lack of any real solid evidence to support them) are so extreme, that you have to ask yourself, why isn’t the rest of the medical world aware of these links and warning everyone of similar dangers?

That’s because the risk factors for dementia are well-known and very well described and include :

– Being over 65 (age is a risk factor for many chronic diseases)
– Family history
– Repeated head trauma
– Lack of exercise
– Smoking
– Obesity
– High blood pressure
– High blood cholesterol
– Poorly controlled diabetes

These risk factors are consistent across a whole range of research studies and none of them include eating grains or carbohydrate foods in general.

Some of the metabolic risk factors for dementia are related to a poor diet high in fat and sugar and low in fibre so a healthy diet that includes a wide variety of carbohydrate sources from mostly unprocessed foods is linked to a lower risk of dementia.

A 35 year long UK study has just been published further reinforcing healthy behaviours linked to lower dementia risk which include :

  • Doing regular exercise
  • Not smoking
  • Keeping a low bodyweight
  • Following a healthy diet
  • Having a low alcohol intake.

People who adhered to four or five of these behaviours had a 60% lower risk of dementia and cognitive decline and had 70% fewer cases of diabetes, heart disease and stroke, compared with people who followed none of the behaviours.

A healthy diet in this study was high in fibre, fruit and vegetables and low in fat – the complete opposite to what the author of ‘Grain Brain’ would have you eat.

Adding even more evidence to the role of a healthy diet in cutting dementia risk, a Mediterranean-style diet, which includes grains, is also linked to a lower rate of dementia and a slowing in cognitive decline.

It is wise to be sceptical of dietary advice that comes from a best-selling book with a sensationalist message that goes against the advice of all major world peak health bodies. Interestingly, the book Grain Brain adheres to just about every one of the points in my 12-step guide to writing a best-selling diet book.


Confused about the mixed soup of nutrition messages being stirred through the media? Tim maintains an active nutrition blog at where you’ll find the latest nutrition research and controversies discussed in straight forward language, distilling out what you need to know for your better health.

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