Alzheimer’s disease is a neurological disorder that is characterized by memory loss and decline of cognitive function. Alzheimer’s disease happens due to the death of brain cells, and it is a neurodegenerative disease which gets progressively worse. As the symptoms of Alzheimer’s worsen, it becomes more difficult for people to recall recent events, recognize people, and the ability to reason and make decisions. It is believed that a diet that includes starchy foods, sugary snacks, and processed meat can dramatically increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Can these foods really increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease? Read on to find out.
Can Foods Increase the Risk Of Alzheimer’s Disease?
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia in the world.(1) Alzheimer’s accounts for nearly 60 to 80 percent of all cases of dementia in the United States.(2) In fact, in 2013 alone, nearly 7 million people in the US were diagnosed with dementia, and of these, 5 million were given a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. By the year 2050, these numbers are expected to nearly double.(3) Alzheimer’s is a neurodegenerative disease, which worsens and becomes more severe over time.(4, 5, 6)
Now, a study published in April 2020 in the journal Neurology has suggested that a diet containing a mix of starchy foods, sugary snacks, and processed meat can dramatically increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.(7) The study focused on over 200 participants, whose average age was around 78 years. They were living with dementia and compared them with a group of 418 participants who were also in the same age group, but did not have dementia.
The researchers found that it was not just the amount of unhealthy or junk food that increased the risk of dementia, but it was also the absence of healthier food in the diet.
The manner in which you combine different foods may also increase the risk of different types of dementia, including Alzheimer’s.(8)
The study found that people who had dementia were more likely to combine starchy foods such as potatoes with highly-processed meats, alcohol, and snacks such as cakes and cookies.(9) So even though these foods were not consumed in higher quantities, the presence of processed meat was very important and central in their diet, and thus, connected with many other foods.(10)
The participants from both groups were given a thorough medical checkup every two to three years and also completed all food questionnaires that recorded what foods they are and how regularly they had these foods over the last five years.
While the study had limitations in that they used only a single dietary survey, the researchers were nevertheless able to conclude that diet, starting in midlife or even before in some cases, significantly influences the risk of developing brain disorders later on in life.
The findings of the study also suggested that not only was the risk of dementia increased by having unhealthy food, but also by the lack of having other healthier foods. The participants who did not have dementia were observed to have a lot more diversity in their diet and were regularly having healthier foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, poultry, seafood, or unprocessed meats.
Another limitation of the study was that it recorded the participants’ diets only once and that too years before the actual onset of dementia. Any changes, therefore, in the diet of the participants over time were unaccounted for.
What Should You Be Eating To Lower The Risk Of Alzheimer’s Disease?
Just like how certain foods can increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease later in life, there are many foods you can include in your diet to reduce this risk as well.(11) Commonly known as the MIND diet, the ideal diet for reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s is a combination of Mediterranean and anti-hypertensive diets. MIND stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay.(12) This eating pattern focuses primarily on consuming natural plant-based foods while restricting the intake of saturated fat, sweet, and red meat.(13) Several observational studies have suggested that diet can lower the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by nearly 53% , while also slowing down cognitive decline and improving verbal memory.(14)
The MIND diet was developed by observing the benefits of the Mediterranean and DASH diets and then taking out the foods that were found to have the most compelling benefits in preventing dementia.(15, 16, 17)
Here are some tips from the MIND diet that you can think about, including in your daily lifestyle:
- Have green leafy vegetables at least six times a week.
- Have other vegetables at last once in a day.
- Have at least three servings of whole grains every day.
- Eat berries at least twice a week.
- Have fish at least once in a week.
- Reduce the consumption of red meat to less than four times a week.
- Poultry should be had at least twice a week.
- Try to have beans more than three times in a week.
- Fried and fast foods should be had less than once a week.
- Have a handful of nuts at least five times a week.
- Try to primarily use olive oil for cooking.
- Use less than a tablespoon of margarine or butter in a day.
- Have less than one serving of cheese in a week.
- Eat less than five sweets or pastries in a week.
- You can have one glass of wine or any other alcoholic drink every day.
The MIND diet is more flexible than the Mediterranean and DASH diets, making it easier to follow and adhere to. This combined diet has been closely linked with reducing cognitive decline and a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease when followed strictly or even moderately.(18)
Diet has a significant role to play in determining our well-being and the risk of developing many diseases. Eating a healthy diet will ensure that you remain healthy and also cut down the risk of many diseases, including brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease. This study showed the diet that people consumed, especially in their midlife, can be a good representation of what conditions they are putting themselves at risk of developing later on in life.
This new research has shed light on just how important it is to watch not just what you eat but also how you combine various foods. The combination of certain unhealthy foods and not having sufficient healthy foods can increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia later in life. It is recommended that you avoid having a combination of sugary snacks, processed meats, starches, and alcohol, and opt for following healthy tips from the Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) diet. This combination of the anti-hypertensive DASH diet and the Mediterranean diet can significantly reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
- Who.int. 2020. Dementia. [online] Available at: <https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/dementia> [Accessed 13 June 2020].
- 2020. [online] Available at: <https://www.alz.org/documents_custom/2016-facts-and-figures.pdf> [Accessed 13 June 2020].
- DeFina, P.A., Moser, R.S., Glenn, M., Lichtenstein, J.D. and Fellus, J., 2013. Alzheimer’s disease clinical and research update for health care practitioners. Journal of aging research, 2013.
- Braak, H. and Braak, E.V.A., 1995. Staging of Alzheimer’s disease-related neurofibrillary changes. Neurobiology of aging, 16(3), pp.271-278.
- Selkoe, D.J., 1991. The molecular pathology of Alzheimer’s disease. Neuron, 6(4), pp.487-498.
- Selkoe, D.J., 2001. Alzheimer’s disease: genes, proteins, and therapy. Physiological reviews, 81(2), pp.741-766.
- Samieri, C., Sonawane, A.R., Lefèvre-Arbogast, S., Helmer, C., Grodstein, F. and Glass, K., 2020. Using network science tools to identify novel diet patterns in prodromal dementia. Neurology, 94(19), pp.e2014-e2025.
- Watson, R. and Green, S.M., 2006. Feeding and dementia: a systematic literature review. Journal of advanced nursing, 54(1), pp.86-93.
- Monteleone, E., Frewer, L. and Mela, D.J., 1998. Individual differences in starchy food consumption: the application of preference mapping. Food quality and preference, 9(4), pp.211-219.
- Micha, R., Michas, G. and Mozaffarian, D., 2012. Unprocessed red and processed meats and risk of coronary artery disease and type 2 diabetes–an updated review of the evidence. Current atherosclerosis reports, 14(6), pp.515-524.
- Morris, M.C., Tangney, C.C., Wang, Y., Sacks, F.M., Bennett, D.A. and Aggarwal, N.T., 2015. MIND diet associated with reduced incidence of Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s & Dementia, 11(9), pp.1007-1014.
- Morris, M.C., Tangney, C.C., Wang, Y., Sacks, F.M., Barnes, L.L., Bennett, D.A. and Aggarwal, N.T., 2015. MIND diet slows cognitive decline with aging. Alzheimer’s & dementia, 11(9), pp.1015-1022.
- Di Fiore, N., Diet May Help Prevent Alzheimer’s MIND diet rich in vegetables, berries, whole grains, nuts. Rush University Medical Center website. www. rush. edu/news/dietmayhelppreventalzheimers.
- Smith, P.J. and Blumenthal, J.A., 2016. Dietary factors and cognitive decline. The journal of prevention of Alzheimer’s disease, 3(1), p.53.
- Willett, W.C., Sacks, F., Trichopoulou, A., Drescher, G., Ferro-Luzzi, A., Helsing, E. and Trichopoulos, D., 1995. Mediterranean diet pyramid: a cultural model for healthy eating. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 61(6), pp.1402S-1406S.
- Sacks, F.M., Svetkey, L.P., Vollmer, W.M., Appel, L.J., Bray, G.A., Harsha, D., Obarzanek, E., Conlin, P.R., Miller, E.R., Simons-Morton, D.G. and Karanja, N., 2001. Effects on blood pressure of reduced dietary sodium and the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet. New England journal of medicine, 344(1), pp.3-10.
- Tangney, C.C., Li, H., Wang, Y., Barnes, L., Schneider, J.A., Bennett, D.A. and Morris, M.C., 2014. Relation of DASH-and Mediterranean-like dietary patterns to cognitive decline in older persons. Neurology, 83(16), pp.1410-1416.
- Koch, M. and Jensen, M.K., 2016. Association of the MIND diet with cognition and risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Current opinion in lipidology, 27(3), pp.303-304.
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