Martha Clare Morris, ScD, a pioneer in research linking nutrition to brain health and a creator of the breakthrough MIND diet, has died of cancer at the age of 64.
Morris was a professor in the Department of Internal Medicine, assistant provost of community research, and director of the Rush Institute for Healthy Aging at Rush University, in Chicago, Illinois. She was also a director of the internal medicine department’s Section of Community Epidemiology.
Long-time friend and colleague Julie A. Schneider, MD, the Deborah R. and Edgar D. Jannotta Presidential Professor of Pathology and Neurological Sciences, Rush University Medical Center, described Morris as creative, passionate, and adventurous.
Her death was “a shock” to the scientific community, Schneider told Medscape Medical News.
“It’s a tragic loss in so many ways,” said Schneider, who is also associate director of the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center. She was a very well-respected nutritional epidemiologist and was passionate about her work; she had just so much unwavering commitment to it.
Diet, said Schneider, is “notoriously a hard thing to study” because “it’s so intertwined with lifestyle” and other factors that create “barriers” to conducting such research.
But Morris had a unique and creative talent for filtering out what might be the individual contribution of a particular modifiable risk factor, said Heather Snyder, PhD, vice president of medical and scientific relations, Alzheimer’s Association, who also knew Morris both personally and professionally.
Morris’s pioneering research examined the connection between nutrition and the prevention of cognitive decline. Taking results from this research, she developed the MIND diet – a hybrid of the Mediterranean diet and the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension – along with colleagues at both Rush and Harvard Universities.
The MIND diet – an acronym for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay – emphasizes brain-healthy foods, including leafy green vegetables, nuts, berries, chicken, fish, whole grains, beans, olive oil, and moderate amounts of red wine. The diet limits consumption of red meat, butter, margarine, and processed foods.
In 2015, Morris published her initial findings on the MIND diet in Alzheimer’s and Dementia. Reported by Medscape Medical News at that time, the study showed that the diet protected cardiovascular health and slowed cognitive decline in older individuals.
The excitement around the findings inspired Morris to write “Diet for the Mind,” which was published in 2017. The book summarizes the benefits of the MIND diet and includes brain-healthy recipes created by her daughter Laura, who is a chef. Despite many accolades, Morris was “humble” about this project, said Schneider.
“This was not about publicity and trying to get a book out; she wanted to see if this diet really was going to change people’s lives. She wanted to bring it into the community,” she said.
Since 2017, Morris had led a large clinical trial of the effectiveness of the MIND diet in preventing cognitive decline. The first study of its kind, the trial received a $14.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Results of this study are expected in 2021.