Foods That Can Reduce Dementia
If you’ve seen a parent, spouse or friend suffer from dementia or Alzheimer’s, you know exactly how heartbreaking and difficult it is for the individual and their family.
It’s one of the scariest things to observe a decline in mental function, focus and memory.
It’s often hard to grasp the root causes of such complex conditions and understand exactly how diseases form. There are often many contributing factors.
One factor that plays a role in the development – or prevention – of symptoms of dementia is nutrition. The food that you put on your plate now greatly impacts your future health and disease risk.
Continue reading to learn more about:
- What is dementia?
- A Functional Medicine approach to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease
- The connection between diet and cognitive decline
- Specific foods to include in your diet to reduce and prevent dementia
What Is Dementia?
Dementia is a broad term used to describe a decline in mental ability and brain function.
Symptoms of dementia include a decline in memory, reasoning and cognition and may be accompanied by changes in feelings or behavior.
Symptoms may be mild or severe, or somewhere along the continuum. Dementia is not a normal part of aging. It’s a clue that something disruptive is going on.
The most common cause of dementia, in 60 to 80 percent of cases, is Alzheimer’s disease, a degenerative brain disease.
Alzheimer’s is characterized by amyloid plaques that accumulate in the brain, the death of neurons and impaired glucose metabolism. For many, the presence of the ApoE4 genotype increases risk for developing dementia.
A Functional Medicine Approach To Dementia
Changes in the brain occur years before the onset of symptoms in dementia. While conventional medicine will say there is no cure for dementia, Functional Medicine is uniquely poised to offer personalized medicine and understand each individual’s root cause.
Some of the things we consider include:
Oxidative stress (often caused by toxins), inflammation, nutrient deficiencies, insulin resistance and changes in the microbiome influence brain health and function. The gut microbiome modulates brain function via the gut-brain access, suggesting that dementia and Alzheimer’s may begin in the gut.
Dr. Dale Bredeson is a Functional Medicine leader in the field of dementia. In his clinic, and through published research, he has shown a reversal of cognitive decline and improvement of dementia symptoms with his program.
It’s important to note that while there are some commonalities in diet and lifestyle strategies, that each individual’s root causes are addressed through his protocols, very similarly to how Functional Medicine approaches every complicated case. There typically isn’t one answer, but a collection of areas to work on.
One important piece, and a pillar of my practice is nutrition. Specifically, how we eat either contributes to metabolic changes and inflammation in the brain, or maintains function and prevents disease.
Let’s take a look at the food – dementia connection.
Nutrition Strategies for Dementia
When it comes to nutrition, there is a lot of conflicting information and recommendations among experts, but one thing that the science is very clear on is the benefits of antioxidant-rich produce.
Greater intake of vegetables and fruits is preventative of cancer and chronic disease. Eating organic vegetables and fruits appears to be protective of dementia as well, suggesting that nutrition is a modifiable risk factor for dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Much of the research on dementia focuses on a Mediterranean or anti-inflammatory diet pattern, which is shown to be neuroprotective.
This type of diet is characterized by whole foods, fruits and vegetables and healthy fats including fish and olive oil. In many ways, it is similar to the Every Life Well Paleo Protocol.
In several studies, a Mediterranean diet pattern has proved protective against cognitive decline and dementia. This is especially true when compared to a standard American diet that is high in processed foods, sugar and inflammatory fats and low in phytonutrients from whole plant foods.
Whole plant foods, mainly fruits and vegetables, are the primary source of phytonutrients, or plant nutrients in the diet. Many phytonutrients play important roles in the body as antioxidants and inflammation reducers.
Unfortunately, eight out of ten Americans fall short in consuming these colorful foods associated with phytonutrients, which has been termed the “phytonutrient gap.” In fact, only eight to twelve percent of Americans eat the recommended daily amounts of fruits and vegetables, which is around five servings per day.
Some interesting and emerging research is also looking at the ketogenic diet as both a treatment and prevention strategy for Alzheimer’s. A ketogenic diet is a high fat and low carbohydrate diet that has been previously used in treating other neurodegenerative conditions such as Parkinson’s disease as well as seizure disorders.
With this eating pattern, ketones (from fat) become the main energy source instead of glucose, which restores insulin sensitivity. With a ketogenic diet, it may be harder to incorporate plenty of colorful plant foods so some care and guidance is warranted.
In addition, nutrition has the ability to modulate the immune system and support the microbiome, which may be preventative in that regard. Many of the same foods that deliver phytonutrients are also rich in fiber and prebiotics that feed beneficial bacteria.
Foods That Reduce Dementia
Let’s dive into some of the specific foods that can reduce or prevent dementia.
When you think of carotenoids, you probably think of beta-carotene. This fat-soluble, orange colored compound is has pro-vitamin A activity, meaning that the body can convert some of it into vitamin A.
Low serum vitamin A and beta-carotene are found in those with Alzheimer’s disease and a higher plasma level of beta-carotene is associated with better memory.
While beta-carotene is certainly the most studied carotenoid, this family of plant-compounds contains over 700 members, many of which are antioxidants, and are found in orange, yellow, red and green plant foods.
Green foods have their color because of chlorophyll, but underneath the green you’ll find a variety of colors.
In a recent article published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 927 older adults without dementia were followed for seven years, while their nutrition and brain health was assessed. During the study 508 participants passed away and their brains were autopsied.
The study found that those with higher intakes of carotenoids had a lower incidence of Alzheimer’s disease and less plaque in their brains.
Here are some carotenoid-rich foods to include in your Mediterranean Paleo diet:
- Greens (chard, collards, dandelion, kale, lettuce, spinach)
- Orange bell peppers
- Sweet potatoes
- Winter squash
- Yellow peppers
- Yellow onions
Note: pair carotenoid-rich foods with fat for enhanced absorption – such as nuts, seeds, olives, and coconut.
Polyphenols are a colorful class of compounds found in plants that are associated with better learning, memory and mood. Polyphenols include flavonoids, anthocyanins, flavanols and phenolic acids.
These compounds are largely associated with blue, purple and red foods, and they are also found in coffee, tea and chocolate.
In a study of 2800 adults over 50 without dementia who were followed for over 20 years, 193 of the participants developed Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. The study showed that high flavonoid intake correlates with reduced risk.
Those who ate the most flavonoids (60th percentile) had a 42 to 68 percent less risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease compared to those who ate the least (less than 15th percentile.)
The monthly average intake for the study was around 3.5 cups of berries, eight apples or pears and 17 cups of tea, so levels needed for protection are reasonable for the average person to obtain from the diet.
Unfortunately, 88 percent of Americans are not eating enough blue and purple foods!
Here are some polyphenol-rich foods to include in your Paleo diet:
- Black tea
- Green tea
- Pink grapefruit
- Purple and red bell peppers
- Purple cabbage
- Purple cauliflower
- Purple grapes
- Purple kale
- Purple and red potatoes
- Red grapes
- Red onion
- Red pears
Omega-3s aren’t phytonutrients as the other two categories discussed, but are incredibly important fats to keep in balance in order to reduce inflammation in the body, and in the brain.
The essential omega-3 fat is called alpha-linolenic acid and is found in plant foods, whereas the longer chain omega-3s, including EPA and DHA, are found primarily in animal foods and fish.
In regard to dementia, omega-3 supplements have been shown to improve immune function in both mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease. It also may be helpful for preventing cognitive decline in those without dementia. DHA has been shown to reduce plaque in the brain in animal studies.
When choosing an omega-3 supplement, quality is key. Omega-3 fats are quite fragile and may go rancid with heat and light. Be sure to choose a quality source and store away from light.
Here are some omega-3-rich foods to include in your Mediterranean Paleo diet:
- Alaskan cod
- Chia seeds
- Fish eggs
- Flax seeds
- Hemp seeds
- Wild salmon
Simply by including colorful, whole foods in your diet you may be protecting your brain and memory. Be sure to incorporate a variety of selections from these food lists and choose the highest quality, organic options available. A few small shifts in your diet now is truly an investment in your future health!