Identifying factors that contribute to the preservation of cognitive function is imperative to maintaining quality of life in advanced years. Of modifiable risk factors, diet quality has emerged as a promising candidate to make an impact on cognition. The objective of this study was to evaluate associations between empirically derived dietary patterns and cognitive function. This study included 18 080 black and white participants aged 45 years and older from the REasons for Geographic And Racial Differences in Stroke (REGARDS) cohort. Principal component analysis on data from the Block98 FFQ yielded five dietary patterns: convenience, plant-based, sweets/fats, Southern, and alcohol/salads. Incident cognitive impairment was defined as shifting from intact cognitive status (score >4) at first assessment to impaired cognitive status (score ≤4) at latest assessment, measured by the Six-Item Screener. Learning, memory and executive function were evaluated with the Word List Learning, Word List Delayed Recall, and animal fluency assessments. In fully adjusted models, greater consumption of the alcohol/salads pattern was associated with lower odds of incident cognitive impairment (highest quintile (Q5) v. lowest quintile (Q1): OR 0·68; 95 % CI 0·56, 0·84; P for trend 0·0005). Greater consumption of the alcohol/salads pattern was associated with higher scores on all domain-specific assessments and greater consumption of the plant-based pattern was associated with higher scores in learning and memory. Greater consumption of the Southern pattern was associated with lower scores on each domain-specific assessment (all P < 0·05). In conclusion, dietary patterns including plant-based foods and alcohol intake were associated with higher cognitive scores, and a pattern including fried food and processed meat typical of a Southern diet was associated with lower scores.