Dementia is a syndrome characterized by a progressive deterioration in memory, thinking, behavior and the ability to perform everyday activities. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia and is thought to make up 60 to 70 percent of cases. Dementia is devastating for the individual afflicted and for their family and friends, but although it is increasingly common, it is emphatically not a normal part of aging. There is much we can do to protect our brain’s health, with food being the “most important environmental factor” for your brain.
Diet and Dementia
Drs Dean and Ayesha Sherzai, neurologists specializing in Alzheimer’s, started their careers searching for a cure for the disease that took both their grandfathers. Along the way, they found something perhaps even better than a cure. They found a way to prevent Alzheimer’s in 90 percent of people, and in the remaining 10 percent who have a genetic predisposition to the disease, they found out how to delay its onset by up to fifteen years. And, for those already experiencing symptoms, they found they could slow down progression, and even reverse it. It seems utterly miraculous but the answer is really quite simple.
How Can You Prevent Dementia Naturally?
There are five strands to Drs Sherzai’s plan: exercise regularly, reduce stress, improve sleep, challenge and engage the brain, and eat better. In their brilliant book, The Alzheimer’s Solution, they write:
- Physical exercise increases both the number of brain cells and the connection between them
- Chronic stress puts the brain in a state of high inflammation, causing structural damage and impairing its ability to clear harmful waste products
- Restorative sleep is essential for cognitive and overall health
- Higher education and other complex cognitive activities protect your brain against decline, even late in life
- Social support and meaningful, constant engagement with your community has an undeniable influence on the way your brain age
- Eating meat is bad for your brain. Vegetables, fruits, pulses, grains and healthy fats are what the brain requires to thrive
What Is The Best Diet For Alzheimer’s?
DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, and it is aimed at bringing down blood pressure. It focuses on portion size, reducing sodium, increasing vegetable intake and allowing moderate consumption of whole grains, poultry and fish meat, and nuts.
How can a diet for hypertension reduce Alzheimer’s? Well, the two conditions are actually connected. Research shows that high blood pressure in mid-life can increase the risk of developing dementia (particularly vascular dementia, the second most common form of dementia) in later life.
However, studies into whether lowering blood pressure in mid-life will actually reduce the incidents of dementia later have so far proven inconclusive.
This way of eating is rich in vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, beans, cereals, grains, fish, and unsaturated fats such as olive oil. There is a low intake of meat, dairy foods and sugar. This approach to eating has been linked to better heart health and reduced incidence of stroke, type 2 diabetes and death from any cause. Pretty good! Plus, a systematic review of the evidence seemed to show an association between the Mediterranean diet and lower levels of memory and thinking problems.
Researchers think it is the large amount of vegetables and the small amount of saturated fat (found commonly in meat and some dairy products) that is the key to its success. So, what if we ate only plant foods and just stopped eating meat altogether? Could the results be even better?!
This is a combination of the DASH diet and the Mediterranean diet, and suggests that people include ten very specific foods in their diet: green leafy vegetables, other vegetables, nuts, berries, legumes, wholegrains, seafood, poultry meat, olive oil and wine (in moderation).
Struck off the list entirely is: red meat, butter and margarine, cheese, pastries, and fast foods.
The MIND diet very much prioritizes plants and ditches five known offenders, while still including white meat and fish. Does it work? One study of 960 participants with an average age of over 80, all without dementia, completed food questionnaires and brain function tests each year for an average of five years. It found those who stuck closely to the MIND diet had brains about eight years younger than those in the study who didn’t.
This is the diet suggested by Alzheimer’s experts Drs Dean and Ayesha Sherzai, and forms one element of their holistic program that prevents Alzheimer’s diseases in 90 percent of cases. The diet is fully plant-based. Meat and dairy is out. Fish is out (they say, ‘if you must eat fish’ it should be very specific types, although they recommend getting omega-3 from a plant-based supplement instead). Vegetables, fruits, berries, beans, lentils, plant milks, wholewheat bread, pasta, brown rice, oats, quinoa, seeds, nuts, olive oil and sunflower oil are all very much in.
Foods That Can Reduce Your Risk of Alzheimer And Dementia Disease
Beans are powerhouses of goodness. Rich in antioxidants, protein, iron and phytonutrients, they have been shown to reduce the risk of stroke, lower cholesterol and regulate blood glucose and managing our blood flow is good news for our brain health, too.
A Harvard study of 16,000 nurses revealed that eating berries – especially blueberries and strawberries – was associated with a lower risk of cognitive decline. Is there a sweeter, more delicious way to protect our brains?
Caffeine helps to stimulate the production of acetylcholine, a neuroprotective chemical in the brain. Of course, we are advised to cut out caffeine later in the day to help us get that all-important restorative sleep – another key component to staving off dementia.
This grain is not only a complete protein source, it also contains fibre, vitamin E, zinc, phosphorus and selenium which are all essential building blocks for brain cells. It’s pretty tasty, too.
Leafy Green Vegetables
Kale, spinach, collards, and other leafy vegetables are full of antioxidants, folic acid, lutein, vitamin E and beta-carotene, which – say the Drs Sherzai – are all associated with brain health. Your mom was wise when she told you to eat your greens.
According to Martha Clare Morris, Associate Professor of Internal Medicine at the Rush Institute for Healthy Aging, unsaturated fats are “the dietary components with the most convincing evidence of neuroprotection”. Where should we go to get these healthy, brain-protective fats? Nuts.
Saturated fats – the kind found in meat, butter, cheese and processed foods – are not kind to our brains. A Harvard study of 6,000 women found that those who ate the most saturated fat had the worst memory and thinking ability over time. The amount of fat consumed was not the problem but the type very much was. Instead of saturated fats, choose unsaturated, like olive oil.
Omega-3 fats build cell membranes throughout the body and the brain. “There’s evidence they can have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects as well,” says Dr. Scott McGinnis, assistant professor in neurology at Harvard Medical School, “which means they might promote healthier brain cells and less deterioration of the brain.” Because of the contamination of fish with heavy metals like mercury, Drs Sherzai advised to get our omega-3 from supplements made from algae.
While there is no upper limit on the amount or variety of vegetables we should eat, Drs Sherzai specifically encourage us to eat: avocados (packed with monounsaturated fats that support brain structure and blood flow); cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts (rich in lutein, zeaxanthin and antioxidants); sweet potatoes (packed with phytonutrients, fibre, vitamins A and C, and minerals); and mushrooms (which improve overall immunity and reduce inflammation in the blood vessels of the brain).
Chia and sunflower seeds are high in vitamin E and other brain-boosting minerals. Linseeds contain the highest amount of plant-based omega-3 fatty acids that decrease inflammation, while also containing chemical compounds that protect blood vessels from inflammatory damage. Sprinkle them liberally.
Those little jars gathering dust on your shelf actually contain the highest amounts of antioxidants per gram of any food. Dust them down, and incorporate them into your meals. Turmeric gets special mention as it contains curcumin which is anti-inflammatory and also has a direct effect in reducing beta-amyloid (the main component of the plaques found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease).
Dark unprocessed cacao and cacao nibs are the purest forms of chocolate, an incredible source of phytonutrients that have been shown to relax arteries and help supply oxygen and nutrients to the brain.
Foods That Can Increase Alzheimer’s Disease Risk
Now we know who the good guys are, we should also face square-on the baddies.
Excess Alcohol Intake
For anyone who has ever strayed over the limit with alcohol, it’s pretty clear the impact it has on our brains. Alcohol is neurotoxic. It directly damages brain cells.
Fried Or Fast Food
The problem here is trans fats. They get incorporated into the brain cell membranes and alter the abilities of neurons to communicate. Research has found a link between trans fats intake and depression, and there is growing evidence for a possible role in the development of Alzheimer’s disease and age-related cognitive decline, too.
High Calorie Foods
Butter, meat, fries, pastries and all the other high-cal foods that are a little too convenient in our lives have an impact on our brain health. They tend to contain saturated fats, trans fats, salt and/or sugar, and these clog the brain’s arteries and directly damage brain tissue. Less is more.
Red And Processed Meats
Meats like bacon, sausages, pepperoni and chorizo often contain preservatives, salt and saturated fats that promote inflammation and damage blood vessels in the brain. (They also cause cancer.) Red meat is also high in inflammatory saturated fats, which cause considerable damage at the vascular and cellular levels.
Most cheese is high in saturated fat, which damages the blood vessels in the brain. Drs Sherzai puts cheese in their top ten list of foods to avoid. Much of it is also very salty…
Salt In Excess
High salt intake is a well-established risk factor for dementia. It was thought to be due to blood-flow restriction but more recent studies indicate that it could be that salt affects the levels of tau protein in the brain. An excessive build-up of tau is a hallmark of Alzheimer’s.
Saturated Fatty Acids
Meat, cheese, cream, ice cream, butter, lard, meat products, cookies, cakes and pastries all tend to contain saturated fats. In 2018, researchers conducted a meta-analysis of the existing data and found that a higher dietary saturated fat intake was associated with a 39 percent increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease and a 105 percent increased risk for dementia.
Sweets, And Desserts
Sugar causes inflammation and “brain burnout”. Research suggests that eating sugar often, especially before bedtime when the brain does its housekeeping, may contribute to Alzheimer’s disease by allowing amyloid to accumulate in the brain at a faster rate. When this protein clumps together, it forms plaques that disrupt cell function.
Dementia is not inevitable, and the choices we make today may determine the health of our brains as we age. Packing our plates with vegetables, berries, whole grains, nuts, beans, spices and seeds, while also engaging in exercise, managing stress, prioritising good sleep and keeping our brains active and engaged, can stave off dementia. We do not have to succumb to it, and it’s never too late to take these measures. We recommend reading The Alzheimer’s Solution by Dr Dean and Dr Ayesha Sherzai to find out more about how you can prevent – and even reverse – memory loss and cognitive decline.
This four-minute film of Drs Sherzai could change your life:Try Vegan