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How Food Cravings Change with Dementia

Alissa Sauer
By Alissa SauerNovember 3, 2014

Many people with dementia experience sudden changes in appetite preferences and an increase in unhealthy cravings. As the disease progresses, taste buds diminish, insulin in the brain can drop and some people experience intense cravings for high-calorie foods. 

Learn more about how to manage these cravings to help keep your loved one healthy.

Appetite Changes As A Result of Dementia

As most caregivers know, many people who have dementia experience sudden changes in appetite which can lead to appetite loss, weight loss or increased cravings of sugary foods and weight gain. Often people with dementia don’t taste food and experience flavor like they once did, which can change appetite preferences. Because taste buds are diminished as people age, people with dementia opt for heavy foods or foods with a lot of flavor, like sugary sweets.

Some researchers also believe that there is a link between type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s, even going so far as to call Alzheimer’s a third type of diabetes. Researchers have found that the brain actually produces insulin, just like the pancreas. The amount of insulin produced in the brain drops as Alzheimer’s progresses, which leads to brain cell death, especially in the parts of the brain responsible for memory.

Further linking sugary cravings and dementia, recent studies have shown that when dementia attacks the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, unhealthy cravings increase. That part of the brain is responsible for self-restraint in our diet. Thus, when a person has dementia and that particular cortex is hijacked, they often experience preferences for high calorie foods.

Managing and Addressing Cravings

Whether your loved one is craving sugar and experiencing weight gain or you are having trouble getting him or her to eat at all, there are few basic guidelines to ensure proper nutrition.

1. Eat in a quiet and calm room with limited distractions so that your loved one can focus on eating.
2. Eat meals together which can increase the likelihood that your loved one will eat the healthy meal provided.
3. Pack in protein. Even if your loved one cannot chew meat well, try eggs, milk-based pudding, or even protein powder.
4. Cut food into small pieces to make eating easier if your loved one can no longer use utensils.
5. Puree vegetables and add them to a shake if your loved one will not eat vegetables on their own.
6. Strengthen the prefrontal cortex responsible for dietary self-restraint by avoiding alcohol, getting adequate sleep, and exercising.
7. At the end of life, allow them to indulge. Registered Dietician, Jillian Ball of Ball & Associates Nutrition Counseling says:

“Food is one of the last things people can enjoy when they’re sick.”

She cautions that if they still have a long life ahead of them to watch their sugar intake and monitor blood sugar if they have diabetes.

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Alissa Sauer

Alissa Sauer

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