For Alzheimer’s prevention and management, consider these nutrition strategies
Since November is Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month, it’s a good time to highlight a major area of concern with this condition: It’s on the rise. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of people living with Alzheimer’s in the U.S. is projected to nearly triple to 14 million by 2060. In a 2020 survey, that number was 5.8 million Americans. In large part, stopping this disease is complicated by the fact that there are several factors at play in its development, which can affect each person differently, the CDC notes.
There are some variables you can’t change, such as age and family history, but there’s growing evidence that healthy behaviors, including nutrition choices, may reduce the risk of developing cognitive decline that could eventually lead to Alzheimer’s. For those who already have the disease, the CDC reports that better food choices may reduce inflammation and improve health overall, which has the potential for lowering symptom severity. Here’s a look at two diets that could make a difference.
The National Institute on Aging notes that one diet that shows promising evidence for reducing Alzheimer’s risk factors is the Mediterranean diet. Foods in this type of eating plan include:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Whole grains
- Lean protein, particularly fish
- Healthy fats like olive oil
According to a study published in Experimental Gerontology that looked at more than 500 people in their 70s, those who adhered to a Mediterranean-style diet had the highest cognitive function scores. Those who ate more highly processed foods tended to have poorer cognitive function, including memory, word knowledge, problem-solving, and thinking speed.
This is consistent with other findings as well. A research review published in Epidemiology found a significant connection between the Mediterranean diet and slower cognitive decline, including a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
The NIH reports that this association is likely because this type of diet is high in antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals, which can all play a role in reducing inflammation and oxidative stress in the brain.
A variation of the Mediterranean diet that’s focused on brain health specifically is called Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurogenerative Delay—shorted to MIND diet—and includes elements of a nutrition plan designed to lower hypertension.
Since high blood pressure is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease, this diet could be particularly helpful for those who want to manage blood pressure as well as boost cognitive function. Even without those concerns, it can be helpful: Research in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia found that the MIND diet substantially slows cognitive decline that’s associated with aging.
The MIND diet emphasizes mainly plant-based foods that have been linked to dementia prevention, the NIH states, and encourages eating from this list:
- Leafy green vegetables
- Whole grains
- Olive oil
This diet limits servings of red meat, sweets, cheese, butter, margarine, and fried food. One important note from the NIH is that even though wine is included here, older adults process alcohol less effectively, so caution should be exercised in limiting the amount—or it should be skipped completely.
Healthy body, healthy brain
In general, even if you’re decades away from thinking about dementia risk, staying healthy can provide more protection than you might realize. It’s important to note that dementia is a general term for a decline in mental ability severe enough to interfere with daily life, while Alzheimer's is a specific disease. Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia.
The CDC emphasizes that habits that improve well-being overall, such as exercising, reducing stress, getting quality sleep, maintaining social connections, and supporting your emotional health, can all play a role in reducing risk for a breadth of chronic diseases, including heart disease, arthritis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, and kidney disease. That’s important because people with one or more chronic health conditions like these were more likely to report worsening or more frequent memory problems, which could lead to cognitive decline, according to a study in the journal Innovation in Aging.
As the CDC states, a healthy body supports a healthier brain. Making meaningful nutritional changes now can have a far-reaching effect, physically and mentally, no matter how old you are or what medical conditions you may be managing.