When we think of Alzheimer’s disease, we think of a condition that affects the elderly. The onset of this debilitating disease not affects the patient but the family who has to stand by and watch as they watch as their loved one slowly slips away. The truth is Alzheimer’s is a continuum of illness that starts years or even decades earlier in our life. There is no cure for Alzheimer’s on the horizon so current medical studies have shifted to prevention.
As the public concern over Alzheimer’s increases, the number of supplements being marketed as memory enhancers or ways to save your memory has also increased. Some of the marketing for these supplements has evidence to support the claims while others are just throwing out the statement “may improve memory” without any real evidence to back the claim.
Recent information is showing that in addition to helping us stay healthy and fit, regular exercise may be one way to guard our memory and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s. Additionally, in the past decade there have been a number of studies showing that staying with an already accepted heart healthy Mediterranean diet has had a positive impact on memory health as well.
The Mediterranean diet is aptly named as it consists of foods that are traditionally consumed by those living along the Mediterranean coast. This nutrition plan follows these eating patterns:
- Smaller portions rather than the “normal” portions we see in our Western diet
- Fresh rather than processed foods
- Larger amounts of plant-based foods like fruits and veggies, whole grains and legumes
- Fish, nuts and olive oil high in monounsaturated fats and healthy omega-3 fats in moderate amounts
- Wine in moderate amounts (generally 1 glass of red or white once a day)
- Eating skinless poultry and low-fat dairy in small portions
- Little or no meat high in saturated fat (red meat) and cutting way back on sweets
One study published in the Annals of Neurology found that among the participants (average age 76) that closely followed a Mediterranean diet had a 40% lower risk of Alzheimer’s than those that didn’t after four years. Even partial adherence to a Mediterranean diet reduced the risk by 15%. A Mediterranean diet may also be helpful for those with mild cognitive impairment (MCI). A study published in the Archives of Neurology showed that people with MCI and adhered to a Mediterranean diet had a 48% lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s and those that adhered moderately to the diet had a 45% lower risk.
One possible reason that the Mediterranean diet works to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s is that people who eat this way also tend to engage in behaviors that lower their risk of cognitive decline. But in controlled studies where some of the factors such as calorie intake, smoking and weight were conducted, the link to a Mediterranean diet remained strong.
- The high intake of fruits and veggies with their antioxidants that can help prevent oxidative damage to the brain and
- The higher than usual intake of fish and olive oil with their omega-3 and monounsaturated fats that can reduce inflammation in the brain.
Current research shows that inflammation and oxidative damage from free radicals may play a role in the typical brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s (1). The heart healthy aspect of a Mediterranean diet, which tends to promote healthy blood vessels and blood flow to the brain, may also improve cognitive function.
Adopting a Mediterranean style of eating isn’t as hard as one may think. You probably eat many of not most of the foods already. What makes this diet so much better than the “supersized”, high saturated fat, high cholesterol, and high sugar diet of many Americans is the emphasis on high nutrient foods. Adding more fruits and veggies, fish and skinless poultry to your nutrition plan may not only improve your physical health and fitness, but it may go a long way in preventing the debilitating onset of Alzheimer’s.
(1) Johns Hopkins Medicine “Health After 50”