If statistics don’t lie, we’re going to be in trouble with regard to Alzheimer’s disease. One in three seniors die from the disease, making it the sixth leading cause of death in the elderly. Even more alarming is the rise in Alzheimer’s deaths, which have increased by 89% between 2000 and 2014. Since Americans are living longer—many into their eighties and nineties—scientists predict that by mid-century 16 million people could be living with Alzheimer’s.
But enough doom and gloom, here’s the good news. Recent research, including one study from Rush University Medical Center, suggests that plant-based diets high in vegetables such as the Mediterranean or the MIND (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) diet, can reduce the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease by 35% to 54%.
The connection between consumption of the current Western diet (high in meat, sugar, fat, and processed foods) and the development of Alzheimer’s is becoming more evident, and current dietary research shows promise for reducing cognitive loss. Inflammation in the brain plays a major role in the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. One of the markers for inflammation in the body is a nonprotein amino acid called homocysteine. Research shows that homocysteine levels tend to be elevated in people whose diets are high in animal protein. So, one of the most powerful tools for seniors to combat inflammation comes from the grocery store.
The B vitamins, vitamin D, beta-carotene, and omega-3 fatty acids are considered the most protective nutrients for the brain. Diets that resemble the Mediterranean diet— those high in vegetables, fruits, nuts, fatty fish, olive oil, whole grains, and beans—help the body reduce homocysteine levels. The beneficial effects of consuming leafy green vegetables appear in the research time and again as being protective.
The gut microbiome also plays a role in brain health. Many bacteria in the gut produce brain-altering substances that can influence the brain by controlling inflammation and hormone production. A diet containing certain probiotics may reduce amyloidosis and inflammation. An altered microbe population in the gut has been observed in people with Alzheimer’s. Encouraging seniors to consume a daily serving of fermented foods that contain probiotics, such as Greek yogurt, buttermilk, kombucha, sauerkraut, kefir, kimchi, miso, and maybe a little red wine, may be in order.
Seniors often aren’t motivated to make major changes in their diets, but they do want to keep their minds sharp. Diet histories can establish a baseline from which minor modifications can be encouraged to move their diets toward a Mediterranean eating pattern.
— SeAnne Safaii-Waite, PhD, RDN, LD, is an associate professor of the coordinated program in dietetics at the University of Idaho and president of Nutrition and Wellness Associates, LLC. Her research emphasis includes the dietary habits of centenarians and diabetes. She’s coauthor of The Alzheimer’s Prevention Food Guide — A Quick Reference to Foods That Nourish and Protect the Brain From Alzheimer’s Disease, available at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.