An Anti-Alzheimer’s Diet?
Eating more of these foods may reduce your risk
Scientists haven’t yet unlocked the secret to preventing Alzheimer’s disease, but some research suggests a healthy lifestyle, including regular exercise, may help. One key to delaying its onset and slowing its progression may be no further away than your kitchen.
Studies hint that these dietary strategies and individual foods might be smart ways to keep your brain healthy as you age.
The Mediterranean diet
The Mediterranean diet is made up of foods originally consumed by people who live on the Mediterranean coast. It reduces the risk of heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure, and may also offer some protection against Alzheimer’s disease.
The diet varies from country to country, but it’s usually rich in:
- Olive oil
- Red wine (consumed moderately)
It is low in:
- Saturated fats
- Red meat
- Dairy products
People who most closely followed a Mediterranean diet slashed their risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by as much as 40 percent in a study that observed 2,200 participants over the course of about four years. Their study was published in the Annals of Neurology. “This study suggests that higher adherence to the MeDi is associated with a reduction in risk for AD and slower cognitive decline,” wrote the study authors. The more closely people followed the diet, the more their risk declined, though the study did not prove cause and effect.
A more recent study, published in 2013, followed 522 people in their 70s. Some were put on a Mediterranean diet with added extra virgin olive oil or mixed nuts. Another group was put on a low-fat diet. After six years, the people on both Mediterranean diets (but not the low-fat diet) had significantly higher scores on tests on thinking and reasoning. They were also less likely to develop dementia.
Want to follow a Mediterranean diet that protects against Alzheimer’s disease? Put plant foods front and center, sub olive oil for butter, eat fish twice a week (and limit red meat to a couple times a month), have snacks like unsalted nuts and non-fat yogurt and fruits for dessert, and — if you drink — enjoy a glass of wine at dinner. That’s the suggestion of Alzheimer’s expert Peter V. Rabins, MD, MPH, director of the division of geriatric psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, in a 2015 white paper on memory.
The MIND diet
The relatively new MIND diet shows perhaps even more promise. A hybrid of the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet (designed to combat hypertension, or high blood pressure), the MIND diet reduced the risk of Alzheimer’s as much as 53 percent for participants who followed the diet mostly closely over the course of 4.5 years, according to a 2015 study published in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association.
Even people who followed the diet only moderately closely saw their risk slashed by 35 percent.
“One of the more exciting things about this is that people who adhered even moderately to the MIND diet had a reduction in their risk for AD,” said study author Martha Clare Morris, ScD, a Rush University nutritional epidemiologist, in a news release. “I think that will motivate people.”
The MIND diet is similar to the Mediterranean diet but may be easier for Americans to follow, with suggestions to eat a salad and one vegetable a day (in contrast to the three to four daily servings of vegetables in the Mediterranean diet). The MIND diet is rich in:
- Green leafy vegetables
- Whole grains
- Olive oil
The diet recommends avoiding or consuming only rarely:
- Red meat
- Butter and stick margarine
- Pastries and sweets
- Fried or fast food
In the study, participants on the MIND diet consumed at least three servings of whole grains, a salad and another vegetable, a glass of wine and a serving of nuts each day, along with beans every other day, poultry and berries at least twice a week and fish at least once a week.
“There is mounting evidence that we can delay the disease with diet,” says Morris, who developed the MIND diet. She added that what’s really needed is a scientific study in which researchers assign participants at random to different diets, so that scientists can compare the outcomes.
The Alzheimer’s Association concurs on the need for more studies on the link between diet and Alzheimer’s disease, calling the current studies “limited and conflicting.”
But in a 2015 review, the Alzheimer’s Association did give a nod to the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet, or a combination of both, saying evidence links both diets to a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
Promising foods and spices
Outside of these overall eating strategies, individual foods and spices that have captured researchers’ attention. These include:
Berries. Berries have the highest levels of antioxidants of any fresh fruits or vegetables. One type of antioxidant, known as flavonoids, give berries their rich colors. And flavonoids such as those in blueberries “have been shown to inhibit the development of Alzheimer disease,” according to a paper published in the journal Free Radical Biology and Medicine in 2012.
The antioxidant resveratrol, a compound found in berries and red grapes, can also reduce beta-amyloid plaque deposits in the brain associated with Alzheimer’s disease, according to animal studies.
Turmeric (curcumin). Curcumin is the main component of the spice turmeric, the ingredient in curry that gives it its rich yellow color. A traditional Indian medicine, curcumin has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant powers that appear to help fight Alzheimer’s, according to numerous studies.
Among other things, curcumin appears to dissolve plaques in the brain, which are associated with Alzheimer’s disease and slow the degradation of neurons in the brain, according to a review paper published in Annals of Indian Academy of Neurology. As a result, the study authors said, “the overall memory in patients with AD has improved” in patients treated with curcumin. The University of California at Los Angeles is conducting clinical trials on curcumin to help determine which forms of it are most effective against Alzheimer’s.
Cocoa powder. In people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), which often becomes full-blown Alzheimer’s disease over time, treatment with cocoa powder improved impaired memory, lowered blood pressure and boosted insulin resistance, according to a study published in the journal Hypertension in 2012. The improvements occurred in a group of 90 elders with MCI who drank a cocoa-rich drink every day for eight weeks.
Fish. If you like seafood, you’re in luck: Several large-scale studies have linked seafood consumption to improvements in thinking and reasoning. In a study from the Chicago Health and Aging Project (CHAP), researchers found that people who consumed fish at least once a week had a 60 percent lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s than those who didn’t eat as much fish.
You could get benefits from eating tuna salad, fish sticks, fresh fish or even crab and lobster, according to the study.
Another study found that eating baked or broiled fish at least once a week resulted in increased gray matter volume (as seen on MRIs) in the areas of the brain at risk for Alzheimer’s disease.
Alcohol. If mild to moderate drinking is good for the heart, can it also help protect you against Alzheimer’s disease? The answer is a qualified yes, according to Alzheimer’s expert Rabins. The reason: It increases blood flow to the brain and may help prevent “silent” strokes that contribute to memory loss and increase the risk of Alzheimer’s. In one study published in JAMA, people who consumed one to six alcoholic drinks a week had a 54 percent lower chance of developing dementia than those who never drank.
Too many drinks has the opposite effect, however: People who had 14 or more drinks a week had an increased risk of dementia.