Alzheimer’s is a debilitating neurodegenerative disease that causes memory loss, dementia, personality change and ultimately death. The national Alzheimer’s Association estimates that 5.1 million Americans are currently afflicted with the disease and Alzheimer’s cases are expected to triple by 2050, to around 106 million worldwide.  Dementia now affects about 47% of the population over 80 years of age in Western countries.  These numbers are frightening but there is something we can do about it.  Two big indicators of a healthy mental functioning in our later years are what we eat and whether we live sedentary or active lifestyles.

In 2004, Dr. Miia Kivipelto of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden to told an international conference n Alzheimer’s disease in Philadelphia of his 21- year study.  The study found that people who were obese in middle age were twice as likely to develop dementia when they got old as those who were of normal weight.  For those who also had high cholesterol and high blood pressure in middle age, the risk of dementia was six times higher.   Many other studies also speak about the relationship between diet and the most serious forms of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s.  They are saying that if you want to get Alzheimer’s disease, eat a diet high in meat, fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sugar, and white flour.  If you don’t, avoid such foods, and instead eat a diet high in fresh vegetables, whole grains, fresh fruit, and legumes, and be sure to get enough DHA and other omega-3 fats. 

Scientific studies continue to show positive links between eating a Mediterranean diet and reduced risk of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. This is due to the Mediterranean diet’s proven positive effects on improving cholesterol, blood sugar levels, and blood vessel health, as well as reducing inflammation, all of which have been associated with mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease. One comprehensive study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that individuals who follow a Mediterranean-type diet had a 32-40% decreased risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease.  This is especially significant as Baby Boomers — a huge portion of the population – are moving into their golden years when cognitive decline is common. 

The following foods have been proven to be brain-healthy.   Fresh fruits, especially brightly colored fruits, such as blueberries and raspberries. Berry compounds counteract inflammation in the body, which has been associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Vegetables, especially leafy green vegetables, for their high levels of vitamins E and D, and dietary fiber.   Eaten on a regular basis, vegetables have a positive effect on brain health and help prevent age-related illnesses.   Specific spices that have amazing protective properties – cinnamon, rosemary, oregano, and turmeric reduce inflammation and increase blood flow. Cinnamon is also known to regulate blood sugar and reduce cholesterol, important to brain health.   Whole grains. Substituting whole wheat products for white flour, bread, rice and pasta helps to maintain weight and improve cardiovascular health which directly contributes to brain health.   Foods containing omega-three fatty acids. Omega-3s are naturally found in your brain and as you age levels of these fats in your body drop. Food sources of omega-3s such as fish, green vegetables, walnuts and flax seed replace the losses and improve transmission of nerve impulses.

Studies have also shown that high intake of saturated fat and cholesterol clogs the arteries and is associated with higher risk for Alzheimer’s disease. However, HDL (or “good”) cholesterol may help protect brain cells. Use mono- and polyunsaturated fats, such as olive oil, for example. Try baking or grilling food instead of frying.

Another great way to reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s disease is through physical exercise.   Exercise strengthens the pumping force of your heart, increases blood flow to your brain, increases exercise tolerance, reduces body weight, lowers blood pressure, reduces bad cholesterol (both LDL and total), increases good cholesterol (HDL), and increases insulin sensitivity, all of which enhance health and reduce the risk for diseases that can affect brain functioning, such as cardiovascular conditions.

Physical exercise is essential for maintaining good blood flow to the brain as well as to encourage new brain cells. It also can significantly reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke and diabetes, and thereby protect against those risk factors for Alzheimer’s and other dementias.   Studies continue to point to physical exercise as the most effective therapy today to prevent Alzheimer’s.

Dr. Ronald Petersen, director of the Alzheimer’s Research Center at the Mayo Clinic  has stated, “Regular physical exercise is probably the best means we have of preventing Alzheimer’s disease today, better than medications, better than intellectual activity, better than supplements and diet.”

Alzheimer’s Disease is not an evitable part of aging.  It is a disease and as such we can protect ourselves from it by choosing what we eat more carefully and making sure that we keep our bodies active through regular exercise. 

References

Barberger-Gateau P. Raffaitin C. Letenneur L, et al. Dietary patterns and risk of dementia: the three-city cohort study. Neurology. 2007 Nov 13;69(20):1921-30

Bourre JM, The role of nutritional factors on the structure and function of the brain: an update on dietary requirements, 2004 Sep;160(8-9):767-92

Bourre JM. Effects of nutrients (in food) on structure and function of the nervous system: update on dietary requirements for brain. Part 2: macronutrients. J Nutr Health Aging, 2006 Sep-Oct;10(5): 386-99

Brain Health, Alzheimer’s Association,  October 18, 2007. http://www.alz.org/we_can_help_brain_health_maintain_your_brain.asp

Shankle.W.R., & Amen, D. G., 2004 Preventing Alzheimer’s Ways to help, prevent, delay, detect, and even half Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of memory loss.  New York. G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

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