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Alzheimer’s is a terribly sad disease characterized by deterioration of memory, skills and thinking ability. It is devastating for individuals and their families and currently affects around 5.8 million Americans. This number is expected to nearly triple to 14 million by 2060.
Whilst there is no cure, research has shown that lifestyle factors can play a key role in brain health and therefore Alzheimer’s prevention. This means there is plenty we can do to prevent and slow the onset of cognitive decline through simple lifestyle changes such as diet improvements, exercise, social engagement, less stress and better sleep.
What Is Alzheimer’s?
Alzheimer’s, a form of dementia, is a progressive brain disorder that slowly degenerates a person’s memory and thinking abilities. Eventually, the simplest tasks become impossible. The majority of people who experience this disease, have late onset Alzheimer’s, which begins to show symptoms at 60-70 years old. More rarely, people between the age of 30 and 60 can experience early-onset Alzheimer’s.
What Causes Alzheimer’s?
Simply put, physical damage to brain tissue is the main cause of Alzheimer’s. This is largely the loss of connection between neurons (nerve cells) in the brian due to a build-up of specific proteins. This leads to a loss of clear messaging between different parts of the brain and the rest of our body.
Scientists are still not clear on what leads to this but it is likely to be a combination of genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors. Now, we can control two of these for the most part, particularly lifestyle, so we should do everything we can to live a life that reduces our risk of Alzheimer’s and diet is central to this.
Difference Between Dementia And Alzheimer’s
Dementia itself is not a disease, but rather an umbrella term for the processes of losing the ability to think, remember, analyze and generally make decisions. These processes are devastating for those affected and are categorically not a normal part of aging, as they are often mistaken to be.
Alzheimer’s is just one disease that fits in the dementia category and it’s by far the most common, accounting for around 60-70 percent of cases.
Can Alzheimer’s Be Prevented?
There is no known cure for Alzheimer’s, although medication can slow and suppress its symptoms.
What we can do is use lifestyle and environment to try and reduce our risk, and research suggests that diet is the ‘most important environmental factor’ when it comes to caring for our brains.
Drs Dean and Ayesha Sherzai are key neurologists in the fight against Alzheimer’s. Their wonderful book, The Alzheimer’s Solution, explains how the disease can be prevented in up to 90 percent of people, by implementing five lifestyle interventions: exercise regularly, improve sleep, challenge and engage the brain, reduce stress and most importantly eat better.
There Is A Connection Between The Digestive System And The Brain?
Although it is strange to think of our digestive system or gut having influence over our brain, there is much stronger connection than most people realize. Also known as the ‘enteric nervous system,’ (ENS) our gut shares many neurotransmitters, with our central nervous system (CNS). This can lead to gut health impacting on diseases generally associated with the brain, like Alzheimer’s.
Alzheimer’s Prevention Diet
So, diet is a key factor in reducing our risk of diseases like Alzheimer’s, but what foods should we be eating?
According to the Sherzai’s plan, vegetables, fruits, pulses, grains and healthy fats are what the brain needs to thrive and ward off neurological diseases. They recommend a fully plant-based diet.
The DASH Diet
Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension – DASH. This diet aims to reduce and maintain healthy blood pressure. It focuses on reducing sodium, increasing intake of veg and allowing some consumption of whole grains, poultry, fish, and nuts.
Blood pressure may seem unrelated to cognitive function but the two are actually connected. Midlife high blood pressure has been connected to an increased risk of developing dementia symptoms later in life, although more research is needed to show whether lowering midlife blood pressure can actually lower the incidences of Alzheimer’s.
Famed for being one of the best weight loss diets, this approach is rich in fruits, nuts, vegetables, beans, legumes, grains, fish and unsaturated fats. Intake of meat, dairy and sugar is very low, so this diet has been linked to good heart health and reduced risk of type 2 diabetes and stroke, as well as death from any cause, which ain’t bad!
Research has also shown there is a probable link between this diet and reduced cognitive problems!
A more specific diet, the MIND diet incorporates features of the DASH and Mediterranean diets. The recommended foods are leafy green veg, most other vegetables, nuts, berries, legumes, wholegrains, olive oil, poultry, seafood and even wine (in moderation of course!).
The “to avoid” list includes butter, cheese, red meat, fast foods and pastries but does it work?
A study that used food questionnaires and brain function tests, was able to show that, in participants over the age of 80, those sticking closely to the MIND diet had brains younger by eight years than their counterparts, who didn’t follow the diet.
So, removing these big dietary offenders (red meat, butter, cheese etc.) when it comes to brain health, is absolutely key.
What Foods Prevent Alzheimer’s?
As managing our blood flow is good news for the brain, foods that contribute to lowering blood pressure are on the menu for Alzheimer’s prevention.
All kinds of beans are key as they have been shown to reduce stroke risk, lower cholesterol and regulate blood glucose.
Berries – by far the most delicious way of keeping our brains safe, Harvard research shows they can lower the risk of cognitive decline.
Coffee – perhaps the best news to be found here, caffeine can help stimulate protective neurochemicals in the brain such as acetylcholine. As much as this may tempt us to hit the coffee machine all through the day, it is important to avoid caffeine in the afternoons, to ensure we get the all important restorative sleep we need to further stave off cognitive decline.
Quinoa – this supergrain contains fibre, zinc, vitamin E, phosphorus and selenium, whilst also being a great source of protein. These are all great for building brain cells!
Other foods on the Alzheimer’s prevention menu are:
- Leafy green veg (kale, spinach, mustard greens, collards and more)
- Olive oil
- Dark chocolate
For a more detailed lowdown on how each of these foods can contribute to Alzheimer’s prevention head here.
Foods to Avoid
With the good, there unfortunately has to be some bad, so which foods are more of a brain drain than brain gain?
Saturated Fats – almost all meat and dairy products, along with processed products like pastries, cookies, and cakes, contain high levels of saturated fat. A 2018 meta-analysis discovered that higher intake of dietary saturated fats led to a 39 percent increase in Alzheimer’s risk. So, a vegan diet that avoids all these products is the way to go.
Red and Processed Meats – if their contribution to causing cancer isn’t bad enough, meats like sausages, bacon, pepperoni and chorizo contain preservatives, saturated fats and salt and these cause inflammation and can damage blood vessels in our brains.
Fried or Fast Food – full of trans fats, these foods are a big no for Alzheimer’s risk, as research has found they can be incorporated into the brain cell membranes and alter our neurons’ ability to communicate. This has led to a link between trans fats and depression as well as growing evidence for their role in Alzheimer’s.
Cheese – Drs Sherzai identify cheese in their top 10 foods to avoid, as it is often high in both saturated fats and salt.
Salt – due to its well-established link to high blood pressure, salt has been identified as a key risk factor for Alzheimer’s. Newer studies have shown that salt could increase levels of tau protein in our brains and build-up of this protein is a key element of Alzheimer’s.
Other things off the table are:
- Excess alcohol
- Sweets and desserts
- Most high-calorie foods (fast and processed food)
What Else Can I Do To Prevent Alzheimer’s Disease?
Drs Sherzai’s 5 strands of Alzheimer’s prevention give us an excellent starting point and identify lifestyle changes we can all make.
They even highlight that implementing just one of the following additions can reduce your Alzheimer’s risk, but when applied all together can reduce your risk by up to 90 percent!
As established above, a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and grains and low in saturated fats, trans fats and salt is going to give us the best chance of preventing Alzheimer’s. The best way to achieve this is some form of the vegan diet that is rich in specific Alzheimer’s prevention foods such as leafy greens, beans, berries and nuts.
The healthy fats and antioxidants are what the brain needs to thrive and a diet heavy on meat, dairy and processed foods is never going to give us those.
Sometimes all we feel like doing is watching some mindless TV, but it is so important to start replacing these activities with mental exercise that promotes cognitive stimulation. This can be as simple as doing daily brain training with games and puzzles, or enrolling yourself on a college course in something new.
So next time you have 30 minutes to kill on your lunch break, reach for a crossword instead of the TV remote!
The importance of sleep cannot be understated when it comes to cognitive health. Sleep is our body regenerating and recharging, so it makes sense that without sufficient rest time, our brains will suffer over time.
Avoiding alcohol is a key factor in achieving good quality sleep as well as avoiding screens before bed. Practicing meditation is also an excellent way of increasing the quality of your rest, particularly if practiced before bedtime!
Regular Physical Exercise
Regular exercise is a pillar of a healthy lifestyle and is key for cognitive function. Research shows that exercise reduces oxidative stress and inflammation in aging, therefore giving our brains the best chance of avoiding Alzheimer’s.
There is a clear link between higher levels of social engagement, particularly in the older population and a reduced risk of dementia.
By spending quality time with family and friends, or even having a simple positive interaction with a stranger, we are protecting and promoting brain cell function, and helping to build important grey matter in the brain.
Stress equals inflammation for the human body, including the brain. Inflammation can cause structural damage and negatively impact our body’s ability to clear harmful toxins and waste products.
Practicing meditation, mindful breathing, journaling, even a quick dance around the kitchen, alongside other natural stress remedies, can be very effective ways of reducing daily stress.
Vascular health encompasses a variety of factors but most commonly, blood pressure. By maintaining a healthy blood pressure, we reduce our risk of cognitive injuries and therefore dementia.
Lifestyle aspects such as healthy diet and exercise are direct factors in blood pressure control, so managing our salt intake and being cardiovascularly healthy are absolutely key.
What’s New In The Fight Against Alzheimer’s?
Research into new Alzheimer’s treatments has been slow in the last 15 years, although new treatments and innovations are appearing. Treatment, whilst absolutely key, is only half the battle. Dementia is absolutely not a normal part of aging, so future focus should surely be on prevention methods, rather than treatment.
The bottom line then, is that positive lifestyle choices are still the most influential factor in Alzheimer’s prevention.
Alzheimer’s is a heartbreaking disease that is rarely part of the normal aging process, and whilst there is no cure, lifestyle choices are our best tool when it comes to prevention. By maximizing the positive benefits we can get from diet, exercise, sleep, social engagement and stress management, we give our brains the best chance of fighting off cognitive decline.
Diet is absolutely key and any form of the vegan diet (except a junk food one) will provide all the healthy fats and antioxidants a healthy brain needs. If you haven’t made the switch yet, it’s never too late and our 31 day vegan challenge is a great helping hand on the road to a healthier diet, and therefore a healthier brain!Try Vegan