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What To Eat To Reduce Your Risk Of Alzheimer’s Disease – Health Digest
What To Eat To Reduce Your Risk Of Alzheimer's Disease - Health Digest,Alzheimer's disease is the seventh leading cause of death in the U.S. Fortunately, there are foods you can eat to help reduce your risk of developing it.

What To Eat To Reduce Your Risk Of Alzheimer’s Disease – Health Digest

While Alzheimer’s disease is often associated with people 65 and over, this silent enemy of memory can impact people of any age. Over 6 million people of all ages have Alzheimer’s disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Yet, as the population of those over 65 grows, there could be as many as 12.7 million people over 65 with Alzheimer’s disease by 2050.

Research is ongoing for a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. In the meantime, scientists are exploring ways we can enhance our diets sooner rather than later to support brain health, as there is growing evidence that bacteria within your gastrointestinal tract are linked to your brain and behavior.

But what do health experts exactly mean when they talk about a healthy brain? A healthy brain is critical for a wide range of functions, including cognitive abilities, the essential skills that support reasoning and logic, the ability to interpret data, short-term and long-term memory formation, and learning. Brain health also allows us to contend with emotions and maintain equilibrium by managing the body’s reaction to pressure, pain, and temperature. Brain health is ultimately vital to our overall health and supports our ability to be “productive and useful” over the course of our lifetime, as Dr. Lisa Mosconi, director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medicine, tells Forbes Health.

The difference between Alzheimer’s disease and dementia

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The National Institute on Aging ranks Alzheimer’s disease as the seventh leading cause of death among Americans. Though often used interchangeably, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are not the same medical condition. Understanding the difference between the two conditions is important so you have the best knowledge to move forward if someone you know is experiencing Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.

There are many types of dementia, though each is the result of various conditions that lead to damage in the brain cells negatively impacting thinking, behavior, and feelings (per Alzheimer’s Association). Mixed dementia includes multiple dementia symptoms and is the most common type of dementia, accounting for 60% to 80% of cases. Other common types of dementia include Lewy body dementia, caused by a buildup of abnormal protein deposits in the brain called Lewy bodies; vascular dementia, which is associated with blood supply problems to the brain; and frontotemporal dementia, caused by damage to the brain’s frontal and temporal lobes.

Though dementia and Alzheimer’s disease share symptoms, such as forgetting recent conversations, difficulty processing information, and trouble completing thoughts, symptoms specifically associated with Alzheimer’s disease include difficulty remembering recent events, apathy, depression, suspicion, confusion, poor judgment, acting out of character, and challenges in executing basic motor functions, per Banner Health. The earliest symptom is often short-term memory loss due to the disease affecting the brain area associated with learning, per Alzheimer’s Association. 

How the MIND diet supports brain health

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The MIND (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) diet is a combination of two healthy diets: the Mediterranean diet and the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet, both of which include an assortment of brain-friendly foods (via Mayo Clinic). The MIND diet doubles down on plant-based foods while keeping animal products and saturated fats to a minimum. In addition to leafy greens and berries, the MIND diet includes other vegetables, fish, and nuts. The diet is easy to follow and can also help you lose weight.

A recent study led by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health supports the notion that eating foods included in the MIND diet can maintain brain health and brain function in middle-aged and older adults. The study examined the data of 242,185 middle-aged and older adults across three cohort studies and a meta-analysis. Results from the cohort studies showed a lower risk of dementia among the 18,136 participants who strongly adhered to the MIND diet. Meanwhile, among the 224,049 participants in the meta-analysis, those in the top third that adhered to the MIND diet showed lower risks of dementia; the bottom third that followed the diet less closely showed an increased risk.

Colorful fruits and vegetables

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Including colorful fruits and vegetables as part of a balanced diet supports your overall health. Experts report that the bright pigments in these foods are vital in promoting a healthier brain, thanks to high levels of carotenoids, which are packed with antioxidants. Your body naturally produces some antioxidants, but certain foods can supply you with additional antioxidants to help fight against free radicals. 

Blue and purple fruits and vegetables are especially powerful because they have anti-inflammatory properties due to anthocyanin, a naturally occurring compound that scientists say may also help reduce cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other diseases, per Science Direct. Blueberries are a great choice to support brain health, and are versatile enough that you can enjoy them along with a variety of other healthy foods (such as low-fat yogurt, smoothies, and fruit salads) or simply on their own.

The medical team at University Hospitals explains that colorful foods that contain carotenoids, including carrots, sweet potatoes, and apricots, can also help delay (or improve your chances of preventing) the onset of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.

Leafy greens

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If you’re a fan of spinach, kale, and broccoli, you’re in luck. These leafy greens are rich in antioxidants and contain nutrients that may be effective in reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. 

A study conducted by researchers at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago (via Neurology) found that consuming roughly one serving of leafy greens every day may reduce the risk of cognitive decline as you age, and that leafy greens were the most powerful protection against cognitive decline among all vegetable types. The U.S. study included 960 participants between the ages of 58 and 99. Individuals who consumed the highest amount of leafy greens per day — a median of 1.3 servings — showed the slowest cognitive decline compared to participants who rarely or never consumed leafy greens. Per the researchers, the active compounds in leafy greens that defended against cognitive change and decline were folate, phylloquinone, and lutein.

The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) notes that the findings of a previous report released by the Alzheimer’s Association in 2017 back up the results of the Rush University study. Per that report, the MIND diet could reduce the likelihood of “future cognitive impairment” by 35%.

Berries

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Sweet, colorful berries. What’s not to love? Aside from being delicious, blueberries, strawberries, and blackberries — sometimes referred to as “brain berries” — have also been linked to improving memory and cognitive function. Berries are rich in plant compounds called flavonoids, which experts believe have health benefits.

A study released in 2020 (via The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition) revealed that consuming flavonoids over the long term can play an integral role in lowering the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers evaluated the health histories, periodic physical exams, and lab results of 2,801 dementia-free adults with an average age of 59 over the course of 20 years. Participants also filled out dietary questionnaires. At the end of the period, those who had consumed foods with the highest amount of flavonoids were roughly 40% less likely to develop dementia compared to participants who reported the lowest consumption.

Blueberries and strawberries are among the foods containing flavonoids that show the strongest link to reducing the risk of cognitive decline. Though the results are positive, researchers contend that consuming large intakes of foods containing flavonoids on a regular basis doesn’t guarantee protection against developing dementia (per Harvard Health Publishing). With that said, evidence exists of their other benefits to the brain.

Whole grains

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Whole grains provide a steady release of glucose to the brain, which is the brain’s main source of energy. These complex carbohydrates also have a low glycemic index, preventing blood sugar spikes and promoting better insulin sensitivity. Additionally, consuming whole grains has been associated with a reduced risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease.

A study published in Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences examined 2,598 adults with a mean age of 61. Every four years, researchers collected the results of the participants’ physical exams and lab tests, and also conducted interviews. Based on follow-ups at an average of 12.6 years, 322 individuals were diagnosed with dementia. Results showed that people who consumed the highest intake of whole-grain foods experienced the lowest risk of developing dementia.

Whole grains are easily accessible and likely already part of meals you enjoy. To get the most out of what they have to offer, the Alzheimer’s Organization advises consuming three servings of whole grains daily. The good news is that leveling up your whole grain intake shouldn’t be difficult. You’ve got a wealth of choices, including oatmeal, brown rice, whole wheat pasta, whole wheat bread, and quinoa.

Fish and poultry

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Scientific evidence shows that eating balanced portions of certain types of fish and lean poultry, including chicken and turkey, may lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. 

Per a 2012 study published in Neurology involving 1,219 participants over 65 years of age, consuming foods rich in healthy fats called omega-3 fatty acids inherent in certain types of fish helped prevent the buildup of beta-amyloid, an Alzheimer’s disease-related protein. The participants, who did not have dementia, provided information about their diet roughly 14 months before undergoing blood testing for beta-amyloid. Researchers focused on 10 nutrients: saturated fatty acids, omega-3 and omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids, mono-unsaturated fatty acids, vitamin E, vitamin C, beta-carotene, vitamin B12, folate, and vitamin D. Results revealed that the more omega-3 fatty acids the study participants consumed, the lower their blood beta-amyloid levels were. Scientists regard evidence of beta-amyloid levels in the blood as a sign of the build-up of beta-amyloid in the brain.

Considering the many healthy poultry and fish options available, increasing your intake should be easy. For instance, the experts at Prime Health Denver state that eating salmon, sardines, herring, mackerel and tuna can promote brain health. 

Wine

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This bit of news may uncork joy for some of you: Though not yet fully understood, some researchers are seeing a link between the reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease and low-to-moderate wine drinking.

A study published in JAMA Network Open uncovered a link between a decreased risk of dementia and mild to moderate alcohol consumption. The South Korean study included just under 4 million individuals aged 40 and over who were covered by the Korean National Health Insurance Service (NHIS). Researchers examined the 2009 and 2011 medical records and tests of participants, as well as data on their drinking, smoking, and exercise habits. They also re-visited medical records data in 2018 to see which participants developed dementia. After adjusting for various factors such as age, sex, smoking, exercise level, and demographics, the researchers discovered that those who reported consuming alcohol in mild amounts over time — equivalent to roughly two drinks per day in the U.S. — were 21% less likely to develop dementia compared to non-drinkers, per CNN.

However, more definitely does not mean better. The study also found that those who drank heavily were 8% more at risk for developing dementia. Moreover, any possible upside for reducing dementia notwithstanding, alcohol is a toxic, carcinogenic substance that can lead to dependence (per the World Health Organization).

If you or anyone you know needs help with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Extra virgin olive oil

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Another way to maintain a youthful brain is to consume extra virgin olive oil, per a 2019 study published in Aging Cell. Researchers observed mice that had been engineered to develop abnormal proteins associated with neurogenerative diseases. After the mice consumed a diet enriched with extra virgin olive oil, they displayed improved brain function. In fact, experts at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine feel so strongly about the benefits of extra virgin olive oil, they advise adding it to your diet if you aren’t already consuming it.

Extra virgin olive oil has a host of benefits beyond helping to prevent diseases linked to aging. Extra virgin olive oil is a superfood, an unofficial designation applied to foods deemed by experts to be uber-healthy. Superfoods are mostly plant-based and contain plentiful amounts of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals that help promote a strong immune system and heart health, prevent cancer, and reduce inflammation.

Meanwhile, a 2021 study (via ACS Chemical Neuroscience) backed up extra virgin olive oil consumption as a way to reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Findings indicated that high levels of an inherent plant compound called oleuropein aglycone reduced the formation of amyloid deposits, per Healthline.

Nuts, seeds, and legumes

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Nuts containing omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants make for excellent brain food. According to a 2014 paper published in Nutrients, the nuts with the highest amounts of the antioxidant vitamin E (which may help improve cognitive function and reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease) are almonds and hazelnuts. Additionally, sunflower seeds rank high in their ability to promote brain health.

However, if almonds, hazelnuts and sunflower seeds aren’t your jam, you have other options. For instance, the experts at Northwestern Medicine report that pistachios, macadamias, and walnuts also have some powerful characteristics that help combat brain health decline. Macadamias help keep your brain functioning smoothly, while the nut oils in pistachios help prevent inflammation. Meanwhile, walnuts contain double the antioxidants of other nuts, and are also rich in inflammation-fighting omega-3 fatty acids.

Don’t discount legumes (e.g., peas, beans, and lentils), either. These help support heart health, leading to good brain health (since the health of your heart and blood vessels affect your brain), per Alzheimer’s Research UK.

Spices

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Supporting a healthy brain doesn’t have to be a bland affair. Though research is ongoing, evidence suggests some spices may be able to prevent Alzheimer’s disease.

Per the team at the Healthcare Associates of Texas, some of the spices you may already use to put a little pep in your pasta, potatoes, or pancakes (such as sage, cumin, and cinnamon) may help support brain function and ward off Alzheimer’s disease. They contain a class of compounds called polyphenols, which are inherent in many plant-based foods and function as antioxidants. Besides protecting against the development of neurodegenerative diseases, polyphenols can also lower your risk of developing certain cancers, cardiovascular diseases, and diabetes.

Another spice that researchers are paying attention to is turmeric — specifically, a component of turmeric called curcumin. According to the experts at the Alzheimer’s Society, results of studies involving mice suggest that curcumin may be able to reduce inflammation and the imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants, also known as oxidative stress, which can speed up the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Based on lab studies, turmerone, another chemical in turmeric, appears to be effective in stimulating stem cells to create new brain cells. These findings suggest that including turmeric in your diet may be able to help with Alzheimer’s disease.

Foods to avoid

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Unhealthy, ultra-processed foods can be especially detrimental to your brain health if you consume them on a regular basis.

If 20% or more of your regular calorie intake is made up of cheeseburgers, hot dogs, frozen pizza, sausage, french fries, doughnuts, or sugary sodas, that means ultra-processed foods make up 400 calories of what should ideally be a 2,000-calorie-per-day intake. According to CNN, a study out of Brazil published in 2022 (per JAMA Neurology) revealed that people who fit this description could be putting themselves at greater risk of cognitive decline. The findings, which were published in JAMA Neurology and based on data from 10 ,775 adults, showed that people who consumed larger quantities of ultra-processed foods had a higher rate of cognitive decline after a median follow-up period of eight years.

Experts believe more research is required to show a definitive cause and effect relationship between ultra-processed foods and the increased risk of cognitive decline. Still, Dr. David Katz, a specialist in preventive and lifestyle medicine and nutrition who was not involved in the study, told CNN that the study makes a strong case that these types of foods are unhealthy for our brains.

Of course, you don’t need to completely ditch your favorite doughnuts or put your hot dog eating on permanent hiatus. But lowering your intake of such foods and going for healthier options will certainly do your brain and body good.