Adding Cheese to Your Diet May Lower Dementia Risk, Study Suggests
- Eating cheese may help reduce the risk of dementia and cognitive decline, new research finds.
- A new study shows that cheese may play a role in a brain-healthy diet.
- Experts explain the findings.
Brie, Cheddar, Gouda, Swiss—whatever kind of cheese you prefer with your crackers or alongside a glass of wine, you’re in luck. Eating cheese may help lower your risk of dementia and cognitive decline, recent research finds.
A study published in Nutrients looked at how the consumption of dairy products, specifically cheese, impacted cognitive function in older adults. The study included 1,503 adults over 65 years old. The researchers obtained data through face-to-face interviews and functional ability measurement (to assess their ability to perform activities of daily living). These tests included orientation, attention, memory, language, and visual-spatial skills.
Participants were also asked about their dietary habits, and about 80% of the people included cheese in their diet, either daily (27.6%), once every two days (23.7%), or once or twice a week (29.7%).
The results showed that, on average, participants who included cheese in their diets were less likely to receive a score below the “lower cognitive function” threshold, suggesting they had better cognitive function. Additionally, when researchers analyzed the relationship between milk and dairy product intake and dementia, it was found that milk and dairy product intake significantly reduced the risk of developing Alzheimer’s dementia, but not vascular dementia.
Researchers also found that cheese-eaters had a slightly lower BMI (which Prevention no longer uses as a measurement of health) and blood pressure, a faster walking speed, and more variety in their diet. On the other hand, those who ate cheese also had higher cholesterol and blood sugar.
These findings suggest cheese intake was associated with a lower risk of cognitive decline. Still, these results alone do not prove that cheese protects against poor brain health. In order to decisively say that eating cheese will lower your risk of dementia, further studies are needed to confirm these results.
How can eating cheese, or dairy products in general, help reduce cognitive decline?The brain thrives on a balanced diet rich in essential nutrients, says Patrick Porter, Ph.D., neuroscience expert and founder of BrainTap. “Cheese and dairy products contain specific nutrients such as choline and amino acids, which are critical building blocks for neurotransmitters—chemicals that enable communication between nerve cells, essential for cognitive functions such as memory, focus, and decision-making.” The presence of vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids in cheese also aids a healthy nervous system, which is foundational for cognitive function, he adds.
While we don’t know if it’s dairy specifically that helps, we do know it can be a part of a brain-healthy diet, says Maggie Moon, M.S., R.D., brain health nutrition expert and best-selling author of The MIND Diet. “The DASH diet, which includes low-fat and nonfat dairy like yogurt, is associated with reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s dementia, though to a lesser degree than the Mediterranean and MIND diets.”
Cheese offers benefits beyond the brain, too. When it comes to heart health, we generally think of cheese as being a source of saturated fats, increasing LDLs (a.k.a. “bad” cholesterol), which are associated with cardiovascular disease, and thus potentially increasing cardiovascular risk, says Dale Bredesen, M.D., neuroscience researcher and neurodegenerative disease expert. “However, a recent study found that cheese consumption was actually associated with reduced risk for cardiovascular disease, heart failure, hypertension, stroke, and type 2 diabetes,” he says.
What kind of diet is best for brain health?
Research shows that the MIND diet and its component diets, the Mediterranean diet, and the DASH diet are ideal eating patterns for optimizing brain health, says Moon. “These are all predominantly plant-based eating patterns that provide abundant antioxidants and anti-inflammatory nutrients that keep neurons thriving on a cellular level.”
Still, brain health is not just about individual foods; it’s about an overall dietary pattern, says Porter. While the Mediterranean diet is often highlighted for its cognitive benefits due to its rich array of antioxidants and healthy fats, it’s important to consider the protective effects of a diet rich in varied nutrients, he continues. “A diet focused on polyphenols, essential fatty acids, and antioxidants can help create an environment for the brain that fosters growth, repair, and efficient communication between neurons (brain cells).”
The bottom line
For this study, better cognitive function was associated with a more diverse diet with a wide variety of “natural” foods, including cheese, says Moon. “If anything, the takeaway from this study is the value of a varied and balanced diet for optimal brain health.”
Still, keep in mind that snacking on a lot of cheddar isn’t necessarily the answer. Eating patterns, such as the MIND diet, suggest limiting, but not eliminating, cheese intake, Moon says. The best diet for your brain “will be based on leafy greens, a variety of additional vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans, berries, and seafood…but people can still enjoy small amounts [of cheese] from time to time within the scope of a brain-healthy diet,” she explains.
These results are potentially important in that they are different from what is expected with the consumption of saturated fats and dairy itself (which has often been found to be pro-inflammatory), so this suggests that understanding the underlying mechanisms may lead to new progress, says Dr. Bredesen. “However, it is important to remember that this study is about correlation and not necessarily causation, so follow-up studies will be important,” he adds.
Overall, cognitive decline is typically associated with two major drivers—energetics (blood flow, oxygenation, mitochondrial function, etc.) and inflammation (from various pathogens, for example), says Dr. Bredesen. “Therefore, interventions that improve energetics (such as exercise) or reduce inflammation (such as good oral hygiene) reduce the risk for decline, and optimal nutrition does both.”