Most experts agree that Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is a result of multiple conditions and factors, including age, genetics, environment, lifestyle and medical conditions. Though some risk factors — such as age and genetics — cannot be changed, others — such as uncontrolled high blood pressure, diabetes, fatty foods that cause obesity and lack of exercise — usually can be altered to help reduce your risk.
Tools for Alzheimer’s Prevention
Alzheimer’s prevention is a general term used for any diet or lifestyle change that is thought to possibly stave off symptoms of the disease for as long as possible, or slow down its progression in the early stages.
It’s important to note that none of the prevention strategies have shown promise to be effective once a person is in the later stages of the disease. The stage of Alzheimer’s primarily thought to be affected by prevention measures is called mild cognitive impairment or MCI. MCI involves mild problems with judgment, language, memory and thinking skills. Although they are considered mild, the symptoms are more severe than those of normal age-related changes.
As the disease progresses and symptoms worsen, the later stages of the disease include AD Dementia. At this stage, the person is no longer able to manage activities of daily life (ADLs) independently. Clinical studies aimed at prevention primarily involve those factors that prevent the onset or improve memory in the early stage of the disease. It’s important to note that not all people with MCI will go on to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, but MCI does increase the risk of getting the disease.
So, what are these diet and lifestyle changes thought to possibly slow down the onset of the disease?
1. Alzheimer’s Diets
The diet that has been studied the most for Alzheimer’s prevention is the Mediterranean diet. The Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay, or MIND diet, is a hybrid of two different diets combined, that is gaining attention for its potential positive effects on preventing cognitive decline in older individuals. The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet, developed to lower high blood pressure, is another popular diet being researched for its effects on the early stages of AD.
Although several diets are said to promote brain and heart health, no diet is backed as strongly by clinical research, as the Mediterranean diet.
The Mediterranean Diet
The Mediterranean diet gained popularity after it was noted that people in the Mediterranean regions of the world seemed to have less incidence of heart disease. Not only were the people in the Mediterranean healthier, they also had longer lifespans. So, researchers started taking a closer look at what these people (primarily in Greece and the South of Italy), were eating, and what their lifestyle was like.
As more research became available, scientists began to realize that cardiovascular (heart) health has a huge impact on the incidence of Alzheimer’s. They came up with a saying, “what’s good for the heart, is good for the brain.” So, it just stood to reason that the Mediterranean diet would be tested for brain health.
Scientists discovered that the Mediterranean diet reduces inflammation, lowers oxidative stress (thought to be a precursor to the disease), and helps prevent diabetes.
A 2015 study called the Health and Retirement Study of 6,000 seniors, discovered that study participants who followed the Mediterranean diet (and the MIND diet) were associated with a 35% lower risk of cognitive impairment.
Some Foods to Eat on the Mediterranean Diet
The Mediterranean Diet consists primarily of bright colored fruits and vegetables, healthy herbs and spices, olive oil, red wine and whole grains.
Here is a breakdown of specific foods included in the diet:
- A wide variety of dark green leafy vegetables and other veggies with deeply hued colors (such as beets, bright red peppers, eggplant and sweet potatoes)
- Beans and legumes (plant proteins and healthy carbohydrates)
- Brightly colored fruit (particularly red berries, but also apples, grapes, pears and more)
- Fresh, wild caught fish two to three times per week (such as cod, mackerel, oysters, sardines and wild caught salmon) which is rich in Omega 3 fatty acids
- Heart-healthy olive oil and nuts in place of animal fat (which is saturated fat)
- Limited amount of low-fat dairy for protein (plain yogurt and milk)
- Moderate amounts of lean meat no more than twice per week (like chicken or turkey without the skin)
- Olive oil at every meal (the primary source of oil, used instead of butter for dipping with bread and on vegetables, used in all cooking)
- Plenty of fresh herbs and spices
- Red wine (1-2 glasses per day)
- Whole grains (complex carbohydrates in place of white bread)
- Very limited amounts of red meat
Some Foods to Avoid on the Mediterranean Diet
- Eggs, low-fat cheese, poultry and yogurt (in moderation)
- Fried food
- Processed foods (doughnuts, cakes, cookies and prepared packaged foods)
- Red meat should be limited (rarely)
- Starchy foods (white bread and other foods made with white flour)
- Sugary foods (prepackaged cereals, fruit juices, sugary soda pop and table sugar)
- Trans fats (lard)
- Unhealthy saturated fats (butter)
- White pasta
2. Antioxidants Impact Alzheimer’s
The bright colored fruits and vegetables included in the Mediterranean diet are loaded with antioxidants, which are chemical compounds (derived from foods) that protect the cells from the negative effects of free radicals.
Free radicals are molecules produced from the breakdown of oxygen that occurs during normal metabolism. Exposure to environmental pollutants such as cigarette smoke or radiation, also causes free radicals.
Antioxidants and the Brain
In recent research studies, antioxidants have been found to reverse some of the symptoms of aging, such as cognitive impairment. The brain has a very high level of metabolic activity, and therefore uses an abundance of oxygen. The high level of oxygen breakdown makes the brain susceptible to free radical attack.
One example of adverse conditions resulting from free radical attack on the brain is memory loss. Hallmark mice studies have shown that one type of antioxidants called “flavonoids” improved Alzheimer’s symptoms, lowered the risk of heart disease and reduced some of the symptoms of diabetes. Flavonoids are available in apples, berries, citrus fruit, citrus fruit juices, legumes and red wine.
Fruits and Vegetables with High Antioxidant Levels
- Alfalfa sprouts
- Blackberries, blueberries, raspberries and strawberries
- Brussels sprouts
- Eggplant (with the skin on)
- Green and red bell pepper
- Kale and other dark green leafy vegetables
- Red grapes
- Lutein-Zeaxanthin: An important nutrient found in green leafy vegetables like spinach, kale, and broccoli, helps protect the cell from the negative effects of free radicals.
- Lycopene: A natural substance that gives fruit and vegetables their red hues, found in tomatoes, guava, papaya and apricots, may lower cancer and cardiovascular disease risks.
- Selenium: Provides immune support, protects against free radicals, found in fish and shellfish and chicken. Brazil nuts are a very good source of selenium.
- Vitamin A: From bright colored fruits and vegetables such as sweet potatoes, carrots and kale, helps regulate the immune system
- Vitamin C: Water soluble vitamin that cannot be stored up (which means it must be eaten on a regular basis), foods highest in vitamin C include red berries, lemons, limes and kiwi fruit. Vitamin C also helps prevent free radicals, supports the immune system, and helps build healthy tissue.
- Vitamin E: An antioxidant that protects the cells from damage caused by free radicals, found in whole grains, corn, nuts and seeds.
3. Supplements for Alzheimer’s Prevention
There are several supplements that have been found in clinical research trials to promote brain health and lend themselves to reducing Alzheimer’s risks.
Keep in mind that there are various grades (potency and purity ratings) of every vitamin and supplement on the market. Pharmaceutical grade is the purest and most potent (and of course the most expensive). In some instances, you need a prescription to buy pharmaceutical grade, and they may cost as much as three times the price of lower grade supplements. Next in line is medical or therapeutic grade. These are quality supplements, but may not meet all the standards for purity set by the standards of USP (Dietary Supplements Verification Process). The lowest potency is cosmetic or dietary grade (probably not effective for disease prevention). Cosmetic grade is not tested for purity, strength or effectiveness. Pharmaceutical grade supplements are the only supplements used in medical research.
Here are the types of supplements recommended for AD prevention:
- Fish oil capsules or liquid (DHA at least 250 mg each for a total of 1,000 to 1,500 mg per day and EPA 600 mg/day), brands recommended include:
- Carlson Super DHA Gems
- Life’s DHA (made by Martek)
- Nutri Supreme (kosher)
*Note: fish oil (and other types of supplements) should be taken only under the supervision of the attending physician. Start slow, with a low dose and build up slowly to the maximum daily dose, as tolerated.
- B complex vitamins: Folic acid (B9), B6, and B12 — lowers levels of homocysteine (an amino acid, thought to increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease)
- Curcumin (turmeric root): Studies have shown that curcumin lowers inflammation and has many other health benefits
- Vitamin D: (1,000–2,000 I.U. per day, or more)
*Note: Although it was originally thought that curcumin supplements may be beneficial for Alzheimer’s prevention, studies found that for this bright orange colored spice to be properly digested, it may require a medium chain fatty acid (such as coconut oil) to be ingested at the same time. Therefore, eating curcumin with food may be more beneficial than taking a supplement. Piperine (an alkaloid found in black pepper) was found to help the absorption of curcumin.
3. Other Alzheimer’s Prevention Tools
Studies have shown that several lifestyle changes may also lower the risk of Alzheimer’s. These include:
- Avoiding excessive alcohol intake and quitting smoking
- Engaging in social activities on a regular basis
- Getting eight hours of restful sleep every day
- Getting plenty of exercise on a regular basis (including cardio and resistance workouts)
- Implementing regular screening for diabetes, high blood pressure and other types of heart disease
- Managing stress effectively
- Stimulating the brain by reading, writing, or other activities
In conclusion, some diet and lifestyle changes have been found to promote brain health and improve cognitive functioning in older adults. Interventions are most effective when implemented earlier in the disease process. The strongest research points to the fact that people who implement prevention measures during their youth are the most protected against cognitive decline.
Although the adage, “better late than never” certainly applies, waiting for a full blown diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease before making healthy diet and lifestyle changes, is not a very effective prevention plan.
Which diet and lifestyle changes have you made to prevent Alzheimer’s? We’d like to hear which Alzheimer’s prevention tools you use in the comments below.
- Healthier Lifestyle May Prevent 1 in 3 Cases of Dementia
- Interview with Dr. Christopher Ochner of The Alzheimer’s Diet
- MIND Diet Could Reduce Risk of Alzheimer’s