By LOUISE CARR, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist
Watch what you eat to protect your brain? Is it possible? Dementia is a global epidemic. In 2015, Alzheimer's and other dementias will cost the nation $226 billion. In 2050 this cost is predicted to rise as high as $1.1 trillion.
By 2025, 7.1 million Americans aged 65 and older will have Alzheimer's disease and by 2050, there will be 13.8 million, according to The Alzheimer's Association, unless medical breakthroughs occur to prevent or slow the disease.
Dementia is age-related but it is not an inevitable part of aging. It occurs when several risk factors collide – and one of them is diet. Could research into diet provide that scientific breakthrough? Scientists can already pinpoint some connections between diet and dementia, and many of them are surprising.
What Exactly Is Dementia?
Dementia is a condition characterized by a decline in mental ability that affects daily life. Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia in the elderly, and vascular dementia after a stroke is the second.
Dementia has many different symptoms that interfere with daily living, including memory loss, impaired communication and language, lack of focus, inability to pay attention, decline in reasoning skills and a drop in visual perception.
Does Diet Cause or Prevent Dementia?
Dementia occurs when brain cells are damaged. When this damage happens, cells cannot effectively communicate with each other. Scientists do not know what causes this cell damage but they do understand that complex interactions between factors raise the risk of a person suffering brain cell damage and dementia. Some factors like genes cannot be changed, but others like diet can.
Diet is linked to dementia mainly because diet affects your risk of cardiovascular disease. And scientists have proven a strong link between cardiovascular disease and risk of dementia. A 2008 study by University College London, UK shows cardiovascular disease is linked to poorer performance in reasoning and vocabulary, and the longer the person suffers from heart disease, the greater the risk.
Cardiovascular disease can be prevented in many cases by reversing the main causes – high cholesterol, high blood pressure etc., and these causes are often linked to your diet. So, improving your diet to a heart-healthy diet can not only lower your heart disease risk but improve your cognitive ability.
Other interesting links between dementia and your diet can also help to prevent the incidence of this condition.
We looked at recent scientific studies to find out.
1. Low Levels of B Vitamins Increase Your Risk for Dementia
Low levels of B vitamins in the blood are linked to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia, according to the 2006 Project to Investigate Memory and Aging (OPTIMA) at the University of Oxford, UK. In this review of 77 studies, dementia is linked to low folate, vitamin B12 and vitamin B6 levels.
It is not clear whether vitamin B12 and B6 supplementation has a role in preventing dementia; more research is needed. (Read more about nooch, the yeast that is one of the richest sources of B vitamins.)
2. Following the MIND Diet Cuts Dementia Risk by Almost One Half
As explained above, heart-healthy eating helps to protect your brain. Diets that have been linked to a lower incidence of dementia include the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet and the Mediterranean diet. DASH includes vegetables, fruit, low-fat dairy, seeds, nuts, and poultry and removes sodium and sugary drinks to lower blood pressure. The Mediterranean diet emphasizes whole grains and fruit and vegetables while cutting out red meat and saturated fat.
One way to eat a heart-healthy diet is to follow the MIND diet. Scientists have found that following the MIND diet results in a 54 percent drop in risk for dementia, according to a 2015 study from the Rush University Medical Center, Chicago.
MIND stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay and it includes foods from the DASH and Mediterranean diets with the addition of foods that are proven to be good for your brain, like berries.
In the MIND diet you eat green leafy vegetables, nuts, berries, beans, whole grains, fish, poultry, and olive oil while avoiding red meat, butter, cheese, sweets, and fast food. The study shows that people who follow the diet closely for over four years have a big drop in dementia risk.
3. Ginkgo is the Best-Tested Herbal Remedy for Dementia
Several herbs and natural remedies are believed to be effective for preventing mental decline but the herb with the most scientific weight behind it is gingko biloba.
A 1997 study from the New York Institute for Medical Research looked at 300 people with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease and found that 40mg of gingko a day helped significantly improve cognitive function.
Another 207 study from Poltava Regional Psychiatry Hospital, Poltava, Ukraine used 80mg of gingko and found marked improvements in mental function among the 400 people studied.
Some studies, however, have shown that gingko is not effective, and many scientists caution against using the herb as a sole preventative measure.
4. Drinking Tea Slows Cognitive Decline
Tea drinkers have significantly lower levels of cognitive decline than non-tea drinkers, according to 2010 research by UCLA scientists looking at the data from the Cardiovascular Health Study.
People in the study were followed for 14 years and those that drank tea more than one to four times a week had a 37 percent lower chance of suffering from mental decline, according to the researchers.
The findings are unlikely to be linked to caffeine as no link was shown with coffee and a lower risk of dementia.
5. Vitamin D Deficiency Increases Risk of Dementia
Scientists from the University of Exeter Peninsula Medical School in the UK examined data from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III) in 2010 and found that the risk of cognitive impairment was around 42 percent higher in people who were deficient in vitamin D, and up to 394 percent higher in people who were severely deficient.
Many older adults in the US have low levels of vitamin D as they do not spend much time outdoors and their skin becomes less efficient at producing vitamin D as they age.
More research is needed to decide if vitamin D supplementation is a good way to improve widespread risk of dementia.
6. Eating Walnuts Improves Your Mental Function
Oxidative stress from free radicals in the brain could be a major cause of dementia, according to experts. Walnuts contain linoleic acid (a plant-based type of omega-3 fatty acid) and many antioxidants, and research shows that they can help protect the brain.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration reported in 2004 that "Supportive but not conclusive research shows that eating 1.5 ounces of walnuts per day, as part of a low saturated fat and low-cholesterol diet, and not resulting in increased caloric intake, may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease" and, therefore, may reduce the risk of dementia.
In a 2010 study by researchers at the New York State Institute for Basic Research in Developmental Disabilities, mice with an Alzheimer’s-like condition on a 6-percent walnut diet and a 9-percent walnut diet (equal to about a 1 oz. and 1.5 oz. daily intake of walnuts in humans) showed significant improvements in memory, motor coordination, learning, and emotional regulation.
7. Aspartame Does Not Cause Memory Loss
Past health reports have claimed a link between eating the artificial sweetener aspartame, sold as NutraSweet and Equal among others, and a higher risk of dementia. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says that aspartame is safe for most people and that there is no scientific evidence that it causes memory loss or an increased risk of dementia.
The FDA has based its conclusions, it says, on more than 100 clinical studies.