My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease about five years ago. I am thankful that she still recognizes me, but I know this will not always be the case. That’s why today — in honor of my mom and the ‘Longest Day’ on June 21 — I’m addressing the issue of diet and Alzheimer’s disease (AD).
Not only is June 21 the longest day of the year in terms of daylight, but it’s also the day that the Alzheimer’s Association uses to shine a spotlight on all those affected by Alzheimer’s — from those afflicted to their families to the caregivers.
If AD statistics don’t lie, we’re going to be in trouble. One in three seniors already dies from the disease, making it the fifth-leading cause of death in the elderly. Even more alarming is the rise in Alzheimer’s death rates, which have increased by 71 percent in the last decade. Since Americans are living longer — many into their 80s and 90s — scientists predict that 13.8 million people will be living with Alzheimer’s by the middle of the century.
While that might sound pretty dire, there is some good news. Recent research, including one study from Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, suggests that plant-based diets high in vegetables such as the Mediterranean or the MIND diet, can reduce the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease by 35 to 54 percent. (The MIND diet is a combination of the Mediterranean and DASH: Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension diets.)
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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.
Some of the most powerful tools for seniors to combat inflammation come right from the grocery store. The B vitamins, vitamin D, beta-carotene, and omega-3 fatty acids are considered to be highly 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.
If you have AD in your family, it’s never too late to make some major dietary changes in your own diet in an effort to help ward off the disease. Seniors on the other hand, often aren’t motivated to make major changes in their diets, but they do want to keep their minds sharp. Small modifications in their diets can be encouraged to move them toward a Mediterranean eating pattern.
SeAnne Safaii-Waite, Ph.D., 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.
Book signing Wednesday
SeAnne Safaii-Waite and Sue Stillman Linja, both registered dietitians, are the co-authors of a new book: “The Alzheimer’s Prevention Food Guide — A Quick Nutritional Reference to Foods that Nourish and Protect the Brain From Alzheimer’s Disease.”
Safaii-Waite and Linja will sign and discuss their new book at 6 p.m. Wednesday, June 21, at Barnes & Noble, 1315 N. Milwaukee, Boise.
Safaii-Waite and Linja also have been researching centenarians around the globe to learn more about diet and longevity. Learn more diet and brain health at the dietitians’ website, thecentenariandiet.com, where you will find blogs, recipes and more health information.