As researchers study Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia, searching for new treatments and a better understanding of what causes declines in cognitive function, lifestyle continues to be one area of scientific interest. Experts are making progress, uncovering new information that can help inform our choices and reduce our risk. One area of study points to potential connections between diet and dementia development.
“A 2013 review study tells us that nine out of 12 studies showed an association between a Mediterranean diet and having lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease,” says Kathy Mankofsky, a registered dietitian with Mercy Hospital Dietitian Services. “Those nine studies showed improved cognitive function and a lower rate of cognitive decline on the Mediterranean diet.”
Dr. John Morley, professor and director of the division of geriatric medicine at Saint Louis University who has worked closely with the Alzheimer’s Association St. Louis Chapter, agrees that data point to a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, fish and olive oil. “Olive oil appears to be an important component; and a balanced diet, including an oily fish such as salmon, twice a week or more, may help protect against both cardiovascular disease and dementia,” he says.
The vitamins and minerals found in fresh produce have multiple benefits, adds Danielle Glesne, a registered outpatient dietitian with Missouri Baptist Medical Center. “For example, luteolin in green peppers provides anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, antimicrobial effects and may decrease risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Also, the Mediterranean diet encourages omega-3 fat intake through heart-healthy oils, fish and nuts. Research has shown omega-3 fatty acids may reduce inflammation in the body,” she adds.
While fish oil supplements may be beneficial for those who can’t or won’t include fish, nuts, flaxseed or other sources of omega-3 fatty acids in the diet, Morley points out that whole foods are a better nutrient delivery system than extracts or supplements. “The epidemiological evidence supports eating fish two to four times per week, but the data on fish oil itself is somewhat limited,” he says. “I believe that God knew what She was doing in creating foods that are better for us than anything we can extract from them. For instance, the evidence for taking multi-vitamins is contradictory, but it has been shown that foods rich in antioxidants and vitamins are good for us.”
However, diet alone is not the answer to reducing Alzheimer’s disease risk. “Alzheimer’s disease is multifactorial. That’s what makes it so complex,” Mankofsky says. “Several researchers now refer to Alzheimer’s disease as ‘Type 3 diabetes’ because it’s associated with a decline in glucose metabolism in the brain. They believe that impaired insulin signaling plays an important role in the cause and progression of Alzheimer’s disease.”
No matter how healthy your diet, Morley notes that exercise is the best thing we can do to protect our brains as we age. “Exercise wins hands-down over diet as a protective lifestyle strategy,” he says. “The data are very good, and we’re beginning to see that people who exercise regularly in middle age are less likely to develop dementia.” He recommends 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise—‘the kind that actually increases your heart rate’—at least three times per week.
“Start with exercise and a healthy diet,” Morley advises. “Then be sure you’re seeing a physician who understands the risks of prescribing medicines that can affect memory, which is another common issue in the aging population. Make sure your vision and hearing are corrected as needed. And treat sleep apnea because evidence shows that this can help with cognitive function.”
For more information on local programs and services for those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, as well as for caregivers and those concerned about memory loss, contact the Alzheimer’s Association St. Louis Chapter at (800) 272-3900 or alz.org/stl.