What is the DASH diet? Heart-healthy diet may also reduce risk of depression

People who eat fruits, vegetables and whole grains may experience lower rates of depression over time.

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That’s according to new preliminary research published Sunday in the journal American Academy of Neurology, for which scientists examined 964 participants with an average age of 81 for symptoms of depression.

Participants in the study were monitored for symptoms and asked to fill out questionnaires about their eating habits, including how their habits lined up with the traditional Western diet, Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet.

>> On AJC.com: 5 signs you should ask your doctor about depression

The DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) is a plan developed to lower blood pressure without medication. The research involved in its development was sponsored by the National Institutes of Health.

According to dashdiet.org, the lifestyle meal plan is rich in fruits, vegetables, low fat or nonfat dairy, whole grains, lean meats, fish, poultry, nuts and beans.

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With a high concentration of key nutrients, such as potassium, magnesium and calcium, the diet has been shown to help lower blood pressure, as well as lower the risk of heart disease, bad cholesterol, heart failure, body weight, diabetes, kidney stones and some kinds of cancer.

Now, researchers say the diet can help reduce risk of depression.

"Depression is common in older adults and more frequent in people with memory problems, vascular risk factors such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol, or people who have had a stroke," study author Laurel Cherian said in a news release. "Making a lifestyle change such as changing your diet is often preferred over taking medications, so we wanted to see if diet could be an effective way to reduce the risk of depression." 

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The participants involved in the study were divided into three groups based on how closely they adhered to the three types of diets. Researchers found those in the two groups that followed the DASH diet most closely were less likely to develop depression than people in the group that did not follow the diet closely.

The people who adhered to the DASH diet most closely were 11 percent less likely to become depressed over time compared to the lowest group, the study found. 

On the other hand, the participants who closely followed a Western diet, which is high in saturated fats and red meats and low in fruits and vegetables, were more likely to develop depression. 

>> Related: Why more US teens are suffering from severe anxiety than ever before — and how parents can help

But Cherian noted that the research shows only an association and does not prove that DASH diets lead to a reduced risk of depression.

"Future studies are now needed to confirm these results and to determine the best nutritional components of the DASH diet to prevent depression later in life and to best help people keep their brains healthy," Cherian said.

>> On AJC.com: Want to try the Mediterranean diet? Study finds it works only for rich people

Cherian and her team will present the research at the American Academy of Neurology's 70th annual meeting in Los Angeles in April.

According to the World Health Organization, more than 300 million people of all ages suffer from depression, and it’s the leading cause of disability worldwide.

Additionally, approximately 800,000 people die of suicide each year — that’s one person every 40 seconds. From 1999 to 2014, the suicide rate in the U.S. rose by 24 percent. Furthermore, according to recent data released Thursday by Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide rates among 15- to 19-year-old girls doubled from 2007 to 2015, reaching a 40-year high.

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