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.
The MIND diet was ranked among the top 10 diets for five consecutive years in US News and World Report.
Morris’s nutrition-related research went beyond diets and examined the impact of individual nutrients. One of her studies, published in 2018 and reported by Medscape Medical News, suggested that the presence of folate, phylloquinone, and lutein ― nutrients found in relatively large amounts in green leafy vegetables ― may account for why consuming a daily serving of these vegetables slows cognitive decline.
One of the most recent studies from Morris’ group, published in January 2020 and reported by Medscape Medical News at that time, provided the first evidence that dietary flavonols, which are found in many fruits and vegetables, are associated with a significantly reduced risk for dementia.
What Morris did so well was to “look at the big picture” and “think about commonalities that cross nutritional components” of diets such as MIND, DASH, the Mediterranean diet, and the Nordic diet, which is similar to the Mediterranean diet but highlights local foods such as fish from Nordic regions, Snyder told Medscape Medical News.
Morris was instrumental in getting the Alzheimer’s Association’s US POINTER (US Study to Protect Brain Health Through Lifestyle Intervention to Reduce Risk) study off the ground. The 2-year clinical trial is testing whether combining a healthy diet with exercise, cognitive and social stimulation, and the management of cardiovascular conditions protects cognitive function in older adults who are at increased risk for cognitive decline.
This study will be part of her legacy, said Snyder.
“She will be remembered for her perseverance to get us to a place where we can be looking at nutrition as a modifiable risk factor and now testing it in trials that she helped to set up,” she said.
Even before her involvement with US POINTER, Morris had long been an active volunteer for the Alzheimer’s Association, said Snyder.
“She contributed significant time and expertise as we looked at the state of the evidence around nutrition and other lifestyle and behavioral interventions.”
“We’ll Always Have Paris”
While Morris was “truly passionate” about diet and health “both professionally and personally,” she also had a fun side, said Schneider. She remembers she and Morris had a chance meeting in Paris, where they spent an entire day going to museums and restaurants and just talking about life and their travels. To the end, they joked they would “always have Paris,” said Schneider.
She was also a loyal friend. Morris threw a baby shower when Schneider was pregnant, organizing every detail, despite her extremely busy schedule.
Family was another of Morris’s passions. Snyder recalls Morris’s face lighting up when she talked about her children and grandchildren. She also remembers her friend’s zest for life. “She had an energy that was contagious.”
Morris also loved the outdoors and was a keen adventurer. She once trained for weeks before a long bike trip with her daughter and would take a helicopter to access remote backcountry on hiking excursions.
“She wanted to try everything,” said Schneider.
An author or contributor to more than 80 articles in peer-reviewed journals, Morris also served two terms (from 2011 to 2013) as chair of the NIH’s Neurological, Aging and Musculoskeletal Epidemiology Study Section.
She left behind multiple grants for various studies. One unique study, said Schneider, investigated the relationship between iron and other metals in the brain and the neuropathology of Alzheimer disease.
“She was really in the prime of her career,” noted Schneider. “She had so much left to give and to offer, so this is tremendously sad.”
According to news reports, Morris (nee Chinn) grew up in Homewood, Illinois, and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in sociology from the University of Iowa in Iowa City, where she met her husband, James Morris. The two married in 1978 and had three children.
Morris completed a doctorate in epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health. James died in 2012, also from cancer. Morris passed away peacefully at her home on February 15.
Sources: Chicago Tribune report, Alzheimer’s Society website; Rush University website.