How can your diet impact Alzheimer's?

Sunrise Senior Living  |  May 26, 2017

Despite the fact that it's been heavily studied, there's still a lot about Alzheimer's that we don't understand. 

Scientists have yet to determine the cause of conditions such as Alzheimer's and other cognitive disorders. It's hard to pinpoint the best way to prevent them, or come up with a concrete cure. Although we've unlocked a lot of mysteries around Alzheimer's over the years, we're still coming up short on the big picture.

One way that doctors have been trying to find a prevention has been through nutrition studies. Could finding the right diet be a solution for keeping dementia at bay?

The Canadian Brain Health Food Guide
Researchers with Baycrest Health Sciences at the University of Toronto announced a nutrition program in March 2017 that they formulated for adults over the age of 50. By following this diet, they believe people will preserve cognitive function and improve memory retention as they age. 

"The Brain Health Food Guide ties day-to-day diet advice with the best available research evidence on promoting brain health to older adults," said Dr. Susan Vandermorris, a clinical neuropsychologist at Baycrest. 

Rather than focus on specific foods for the diet, the team instead emphasizes key groups of foods that have health properties that could affect the brain. These include:

  • Berries, like strawberries, blueberries and blackberries, which are full of antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids. 
  • Cruciferous vegetables, like spinach cauliflower and cabbage, rich in folic acid and vitamin A. 
  • Fish, especially oily varieties like salmon, tuna and trout, which contain high volumes of omega-3 fats. 

Other categories include beans and nuts, which the team recommends adults eat every week. 

"There is increasing evidence in scientific literature that healthy eating is associated with retention of cognitive function, but there is also a lot of misinformation out there," said Dr. Carol Greenwood, senior scientist at Baycrest.

By focusing on classes of foods rather than individual, specific foods, the Baycrest team aims to combat some of that misinformation. This diet also allows for variety, which makes it easier for people to stick to it.

Berries contain important antioxidants that are good for brain health. Berries contain important antioxidants that are good for brain health.

The MIND diet
Another brain-centric diet developed recently is the MIND diet. Developed by researchers at the Rush University Medical Center, they state that those who strictly follow the MIND diet reduce their risks of developing Alzheimer's by 53 percent, while those who follow it moderately reduce their risks by 35 percent. 

This diet is a little more rigid than the Canadian Brain Health Food Guide, but incudes many of the same elements. It dictates that people eat three servings of whole grain everyday, along with a salad and one other vegetable, and drink a glass of wine. Daily snacks on nuts and incorporating beans into meals every other day is also required, as is consumption of poultry and berries twice a week and fish at least once a week.

All together, there are 10 healthy foods that the MIND diet encourages:

  • Vegetables, especially cruciferous vegetables.
  • Nuts.
  • Berries.
  • Whole grains.
  • Fish.
  • Poultry.
  • Olive oil.
  • Wine.

The diet also mandates that people severely restrict their intake of:

  • Red meat.
  • Butter and margarine.
  • Cheese.
  • Sweets.
  • Fried food.
  • Fast food.

"Studies have yielded evidence that suggests that what we eat may play a significant role in determining who gets [Alzheimer's] and who doesn't," said Dr. Martha Clare Morris, nutritional epidemiologist at Rush University. 

By making a habit of incorporating more brain-healthy foods and limiting saturated fats and sugars, the Rush team believes more people will be able to delay or prevent the development of Alzheimer's. 

Healthy meals are essential for older adults. Healthy meals are essential for older adults.

Nutrition for older adults
According to the World Health Organization, older adults may be especially susceptible to malnutrition. Metabolic rates, basal temperature and lean body mass decline as we get older, which impacts the body's nutritional needs. Chronic diseases and certain medications can also affect a person's needs, as well as their appetites. 

Caregivers of older loved ones, especially those with cognitive conditions like dementia, need to be hyper-aware of what they're eating and how often. Preparing balanced meals based on healthy foods is essential, and your loved one is likely relying on you to shop for and prepare their meals. Avoid anything high in saturated fat, sugar and sodium. 

While you should consult your loved one's physician for specific recommendations for their diet, you can also use the MyPlate Checklist Calculator from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help you determine the caloric intake they need each day to stay as healthy as possible.

Whether you aim to follow a specific diet or just focus on incorporating more healthy foods into meals, it's important to consider the nutritional value of the foods you prepare, especially as you age.

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