Meet the scientist identifying how to eat and age well

PUBLISHED: 08:00 24 October 2020

Professor of nutrigenetics Anne-Marie Minihane'’s research shows that Mediterranean-style plant-rich diets are cognitively protective       Picture: UEA/Henry Iddon

Professor of nutrigenetics Anne-Marie Minihane'’s research shows that Mediterranean-style plant-rich diets are cognitively protective Picture: UEA/Henry Iddon

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Professor of Nutrigenetics at UEA and director of Norwich Institute of Healthy Ageing, Anne-Marie Minihane discusses how changing our eating habits and behaviours, including adopting a Mediterranean-style diet, can protect against cognitive decline.

The Norwich Institute of Healthy Ageing aims to take research off Norwich Research Park and into the community      Picture: UEA/Henry IddonThe Norwich Institute of Healthy Ageing aims to take research off Norwich Research Park and into the community Picture: UEA/Henry Iddon

Each month, those working at the pioneering heart of Norwich Research Park tell us how their work is shaping the world we live in. Read their stories here.

You are a professor of nutrigenetics – what does that involve?

My research focuses on the dietary components and patterns that help preserve brain function as we age. I am particularly interested in omega-3 fatty acids and their relation to brain health, dementia risk and Alzheimer’s disease. Two thirds of Alzheimer’s patients are females and our research programme explores what dietary strategies promote brain (cognitive) health, especially at-risk females with a specific gene variant, APOE-4.

'‘I was brought up on the Atlantic Ocean in West Cork, so it is great to be within the vicinity of the coast,’' says Anne-Marie Minihane      Picture: Anne-Marie Minihane'‘I was brought up on the Atlantic Ocean in West Cork, so it is great to be within the vicinity of the coast,’' says Anne-Marie Minihane Picture: Anne-Marie Minihane

How can dietary behaviours prevent cognitive decline?

Individuals with poor cardiovascular health – i.e. those who are overweight, diabetic or have high blood pressure – tend to be at a higher risk of cognitive decline later in life. Metabolic processes change as we age and people with different genotypes may have different metabolic pathways, so our clinical trials look at what factors determine how we metabolise food bioactives. We then use that research to develop bespoke dietary recommendations for individuals based on their personal profile.

Two areas of particular interest are omega-3 fatty acids and a Mediterranean-style diet. Such plant-rich diets that are high in oily fish, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and olive oil, but which are low in red meat, have proved cognitively protective in Mediterranean countries. There, people also tend to eat slowly in the sunshine and in social settings, so it could be that there are other elements of the Mediterranean lifestyle which 
are beneficial. We are studying whether adopting that diet in Northern Europe will result in the same cognitive benefits.

What is the Norwich Institute of Healthy Ageing (NIHA)?

The Norwich Institute of Healthy Ageing is a collaboration between Norwich Research Park, Norwich City Council, Norfolk County Council, local community groups and commercial partners focusing on how behaviours such as eating habits, physical activity, smoking, alcohol consumption and socialisation affect health.

We deliver both fundamental science and community-based research which investigates the many social, cultural, economic, geographical and environmental determinants of behaviours that impact on our health.

We aim to take the research from Norwich Research Park and into the community, developing interventions that can help us all modify our behaviours in a sustained and integrated way to promote wellbeing.

How did you end up working here in Norwich?

I first moved here from University College Cork in 1992 to do my PhD at the Institute of Food Research, which is now the Quadram Institute of Biosciences. After that I went to the University of Reading before moving to New Zealand where I worked as Associate Professor of Physiology at Auckland Medical School. I moved back to Norwich and UEA in 2010 to take up my current post.

Did you always want to work in health science research?

I was active and health aware from a young age and have always been science orientated, so it was a natural progression for me to develop a career in nutrition.

During my Leaving Certificate – the Irish equivalent of A Levels – I was doing accountancy. Halfway through my first year I realised the error of my ways and switched to biology. I find it quite amusing because the biology lessons I missed in my first year is when I would have been taught genetics, so I completely missed it in school. And later during my ‘fresher’ first year at university I missed the genetic teaching again due to illness!

What’s the best thing about working at Norwich Research Park?

There is no better place than Norwich to do this kind of research. We have four world-renowned research institutes as well the as UEA and the Norfolk & Norwich University Hospital on the same campus, so we cover every single element of the food chain. It is actually very unique to be able to do all that at one place. The wealth of expertise and facilities is excellent and I enjoy the collegial vibe.

What do you get up to when you are not working?

I was brought up on the Atlantic Ocean in West Cork and my partner Lisa and I both like the outdoors, so it is great to be close to the coast.

I am sporty – I used to play international basketball for Ireland in my youth – and I like going for runs along the river in Norwich. I also love art galleries, museums and reading historical fiction. Scientific publishing is another passion of mine and I am deputy editor of three nutrition journals.

Anne-Marie Minihane is director of Norwich Institute of Healthy Ageing. Submit your questions and sign up for the virtual launch event on Thursday, November 26 6-7.30pm, entitled ‘Challenges and Solutions in Healthy Ageing’ . 
The event will consist of a series of short talks with keynote speaker George McGinnis, UK government leader on health ageing research, followed by a Q&A session: ‘Ask us Anything’. Sign up by emailing business@uea.ac.uk


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