Little in life is as scary as the idea of forgetting our loved ones, our histories, and ourselves. Yet that is exactly what is happening to the more than 5 million people in North America suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
Mild forgetfulness in the early years of the disease slowly expands to include serious problems with memory, language, and abstract reasoning until eventually this brain disorder robs its victims of the ability to function.
Despite extensive research, both cause and cure for Alzheimer’s disease remain elusive. Experts theorize that a complicated combination of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors result in cognitive decline, though they are still working on exactly how it happens and what can be done to prevent it.
One logical area of exploration is diet. While there have been no definitive breakthroughs yet, there are certain foods that are being carefully studied for their specific relationship to Alzheimer’s.
Diet and Alzheimer’s Disease: Omega-3 Fatty Acids and B Vitamins
“A few studies found a correlation between high dietary fish with omega-3 fatty acid intake and a decrease in developing Alzheimer’s,” says Tara Harwood, registered dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. “However, more studies must be conducted before any conclusions can be drawn.”
High levels of homocysteine, an amino acid in the blood, have been associated with the risk of dementia. One avenue being examined is whether increasing intake of folate and vitamins B6 and B12, which break down homocysteine, can help prevent Alzheimer’s disease. “Neither vitamin B6 or B12 supplementation has been proven effective,” says Harwood, “but data from one study found a lower incidence of Alzheimer’s for individuals with the highest folate intake.”
Diet and Alzheimer’s Disease: Antioxidants
Another possible theory in the development of Alzheimer’s disease involves free radicals destroying the integrity of the body’s cells. These unstable molecules have the potential to cause cell aging and damage, which could be one piece of the Alzheimer’s puzzle.
“You can reduce your exposure to free radicals by limiting contact with the sun, environmental pollutants, and cigarette smoke,” says Harwood. “However, free radicals are a byproduct of metabolism, which occurs every minute of the day. Because it’s impossible to completely eliminate free radicals, [eating foods with] antioxidants, such as vitamin E, vitamin C, beta carotene, and flavonoids, can help.”
Foods high in antioxidants include berries, dark green and orange vegetables, nuts, and beans. Specifically, studies have shown rats and mice bred to develop Alzheimer’s disease had improved mental function after being fed blueberries, strawberries, and cranberries. Green tea is also high in antioxidants, and although it hasn’t been proven specifically to prevent Alzheimer’s, it has been shown that drinking five cups a day can reduce one’s risk of heart disease.
Diet and Alzheimer’s Disease: The Mediterranean Diet
A few recent studies conducted by researchers from the neurology department at Columbia University Medical Center in New York have looked at the possible preventive effects of the typical diet eaten by people in countries around the Mediterranean sea, such as Greece. The “Mediterranean diet” is primarily made up of fruits, vegetables, and beans, fish, olive oil, a moderate amount of wine, some dairy foods, and small amounts of meat and chicken. Though more study is needed, results point to a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s and lower mortality rate among those who contracted the disease.
Diet and Alzheimer’s Disease: Next Steps
While there is no definitive answer to the Alzheimer’s mystery, there are certainly clues to follow. “No changes in diet, dietary supplements, food additives, vitamins, nor alternative herbal medicines have ever been demonstrated to affect the risk for Alzheimer’s disease or the course of the disease in a well-designed clinical trial experiment,” says Randolph Schiffer, MD, director of the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Cleveland. “With that said, most of us in the Alzheimer’s research field believe that people should adopt and continue healthy lifestyles, including diets low in saturated fats and high in antioxidants and B vitamins.”
Until more research is available, it makes sense to combine a good diet with physical and mental activity and social interaction. This approach just might help keep Alzheimer’s disease, as well as other illnesses, at bay.