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How scientists are shifting their search for links between diet and dementia

The internet is rife with advice for keeping the brain sharp as we age, and much of it is focused on the foods we eat. Headlines promise that oatmeal will fight off dementia. Blueberries improve memory. Coffee can slash your risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Take fish oil. Eat more fiber. Drink red wine. Forgo alcohol. Snack on nuts. Don’t skip breakfast. But definitely don’t eat bacon.

One recent diet study got media attention, with one headline claiming, “Many people may be eating their way to dementia.” The study, published last December in Neurology, found that people who ate a diet rich in anti-inflammatory foods like fruits, vegetables, beans and tea or coffee had a lower risk of dementia than those who ate foods that boost inflammation, such as sugar, processed foods, unhealthy fats and red meat.

But the study, like most research on diet and dementia, couldn’t prove a causal link. And that’s not good enough to make recommendations that people should follow. Why has it proved such a challenge to pin down whether the foods we eat can help stave off dementia?

First, dementia, like most chronic diseases, is the result of a complex interplay of genes, lifestyle and environment that researchers don’t fully understand. Diet is just one factor. Second, nutrition research is messy. People struggle to recall the foods they’ve eaten, their diets change over time, and modifying what people eat — even as part of a research study — is exceptionally difficult.

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