Fighting Alzheimer’s and Dementia-Related Illness at the Table

The Importance of Food Choice in Maintaining Cognitive Health

Some 55 million people across the globe are affected by Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia. According to the nonprofit Alzheimer’s Association, nearly seven million US residents are living with Alzheimer’s, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) spends nearly $3.8 billion annually on research into the prevention and cure of Alzheimer’s disease.

The Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation explains that Alzheimer’s creates changes in the brain up to twenty years before the onset of symptoms, such as memory loss, confusion, and poor judgment. While we do not yet have curative or preventive medication, research has given us insight into how we can protect ourselves from Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other forms of cognitive decline as we age.

Controlling What We Can

According to the Mayo Clinic, we can reduce our risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease by adopting healthy habits regarding diet, exercise, and avoidance of smoking. The Alzheimer’s Association adds that research indicates that our age, genetic makeup, and environment all contribute to our risk of developing the disease—and while we cannot change our age or genes, we can control much of our environment and lifestyle choices, including our diet.

Minimizing Risk Factors and Making Connections to Heart and Head

In a 2022 update, The American Heart Association notes not only the rise in prevalence of diseases of the brain but also the shared risk factors between heart disease and brain disease, particularly Alzheimer’s: high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, and tobacco use. The same food choices that promote cardiovascular health by minimizing what the NIH calls oxidative stress also protect the brain, as does the interaction of exercise and diet.

Research-Based Smart Food Choices

Researchers refer to heart- and brain-healthy foods as being neuroprotective because of the role they play in slowing or preventing cognitive decline. The National Institute on Aging (NIA) tells us many studies suggest that what we eat affects the aging brain’s ability to think and remember. Patterns of healthy eating can lead to cognitive benefits by reducing the biological stressors and inflammation that underlie Alzheimer’s and dementia:

Neuroprotective Foods:

  • green, leafy, and other vegetables
  • berries
  • foods containing the vitamins E and B3, B6, and B12 (poultry, fish, legumes, nuts, leafy greens, dairy products)
  • seafood with n-3 (Omega 3) fatty acids, such as salmon, tuna, herring, mackerel, and sardines
  • nuts and seeds, such as flaxseed, walnuts, and soybeans
  • canola and flaxseed oils

Foods to avoid include saturated fat (butter, fatty meats, lard), refined sugar, red meat, fried foods, trans fats, and sodium.

Mediterranean and DASH Diets

Preliminary research also supports the healthful benefits of both the Mediterranean and DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diets to help prevent Alzheimer’s and related illness—with the caveat that ongoing research is needed to confirm these initial findings.

A hybrid form of the Mediterranean and DASH diets is called the MIND diet (Mediterranean–DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay). Harvard Health explains that the MIND diet centers on plant-based eating, focusing on foods rich in anti-inflammatory nutrients.

Common to all these diets is reducing red meat and sodium consumption. A recent article in the Journal of Post-Acute and Long-Term Care Medicine notes that eating too much sodium can increase both the risk and progression of dementia because of the link between sodium intake and hypertension, or high blood pressure.

In an article entitled What Do We Know About Diet and Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease, the NIH explains that no single food or supplement can prevent dementia-related disease; rather, scientists look for clues and patterns. Recent research findings include the following:

  • Molecules in green tea can break down the protein tangles that accumulate in the brain as a result of Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Older adults who eat daily servings of leafy green vegetables, such as kale or spinach, experience slower rates of age-related cognitive decline.
  • Regularly eating fish is associated with higher cognitive function and slower cognitive decline with aging.
  • Consuming excessive salt increases the levels of protein tangles associated with cognitive impairment that are found in the brains of those with Alzheimer’s.

Understanding Taste Perception Profile

Research is also finding connections among how we perceive the taste of food, what we eat, and health—particularly heart health, which we know is linked to brain health. Dr. Alice Lichtenstein, Senior Scientist and Director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Lab at Tufts University, explains that craving a certain taste makes us seek it out and need more of it to feel satisfied.

The aging process changes our sense of taste, with an increase in sour and bitter taste perception and a decline in salty, sweet, and umami, or savory, says the NIH. This research finding may explain why seniors often crave foods tasting salty and sweet.

Understanding cravings and preferences can help us make healthier dietary choices—especially when we are aware of the connection between taste perception, food choice, and minimizing the risk for Alzheimer’s disease.

A Community Committed to Holistic Wellness

The quote attributed to the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates suggests that we let our food be our medicine. Plymouth Harbor’s care for residents extends to superior cuisine that surpasses nutritional requirements and tantalizes the palate. Locally sourced fish, fruit, and vegetables—including herbs and greens from the community garden—show a commitment to fresh, healthy food.

This dedication to healthful, enjoyable dining extends to the community’s Starr Memory Care Residences, bringing comfort, dignity, independence, and expert care for Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia- and cognitive-decline related illnesses. A dedicated Education and Outreach Coach oversees training and support, which includes daily wellness programming. And, of course, healthy food and snacks are provided as part of Plymouth Harbor’s dedication to specialized, state-of-the-art Memory Care.