What you eat can significantly reduce your risk of Alzheimer's

It happens to the best of us - forgetting someone's name you know you have met before, an event you said you'd attend slips your mind or sometimes a word you want to express seems elusive. It is natural to be concerned. However, it is difficult to know whether this is simply a natural part of our overly busy lives, ageing or a sign of something more serious.

Regardless, all of us want to protect our minds and eating well is a great way to do it. The good news is that new research into Alzheimer’s disease shows a healthy diet can reduce your risk.

What is Alzheimer’s disease?
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia often resulting in impaired memory, thinking and behavior. The cause of the disease can either be sporadic or familial.

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Almost one in ten Australians over 65 has dementia, and three in ten over the age of 85. 

Risk factors
Age is the most significant known risk factor for developing dementia. After the age of 65, the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease doubles every five years. Age is believed to be such a significant risk factor due to the effects it has on nerve cells, DNA and cell structure; higher blood pressure, increased risk of diseases like heart disease and stroke, the weakening of the body’s natural repair systems, and changes in the immune system are also known side-effects.

Women are slightly more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than men; however, scientists and researchers do not understand why this is the case. The genetic component of Alzheimer’s is also not fully understood, but abundant research has shown that it definitely has a hereditary element.

A gene called apolopoprotein E is believed to play a part in the development of Alzheimer’s disease. There is also a gene that directly causes the rare form of Familial Alzheimer’s Disease (FAD), which often sets in before the age of 60.

Cardiovascular disease significantly increases a person’s risk of developing dementia. Diabetes, mid-life high blood pressure, high blood-cholesterol levels, mid-life obesity, heart problems (like heart attack or irregular heart rhythms and strokes) all increase one’s risk of Alzheimer’s.

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Regular exercise is important to keep not only your body but your mind in shape.

On top of this, those who experience depression, severe or repeated head injuries or serious medical conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, chronic kidney disease and HIV, are at an even greater risk of developing the illness.

Warning signs and testing
The major warning sign for Alzheimer’s disease is difficulty in remembering recent events. A person with dementia will forget things more frequently. A dementia patient may lose the ability to: do familiar, everyday tasks; forget simple words or substitute inappropriate words; become disoriented of time and place even in familiar areas; have problems with abstract thinking; misplace items and repeatedly put them in inappropriate places; have rapid mood swings for no apparent reason; experience personality changes and lose initiative.

It is important to remember that occasional forgetfulness follows a normal pattern of basic memory function and that you shouldn’t jump to conclusions if you forget basic things! Be sure to seek professional medical advice if you are concerned about your memory. 

If a member of your family has Alzheimer’s Disease, it is possible to undergo genetic testing to determine if you also hold either the high-risk APOE e4 gene or the FAD deterministic gene. However, genetic testing currently has little or no practical impact on medical treatment decisions because of the current lack of treatment for the disease. Genetic testing for the APOE e4 gene can only determine if a person is at higher risk of developing the disease, while testing for FAD can only indicate whether a person will develop the disease, rather than precisely when the symptoms will begin.

Alzheimer’s disease and diet
Few people are aware of the strong correlation between targeted nutrition and Alzheimer’s disease prevention or improvement. Countless scientific studies have shown that a targeted diet can prevent, delay, or even reverse the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. Although there is no singularly accepted diet among medical professionals, recent research has sparked the debate and gives new light to the issue.

The Canadian Alzheimer’s Disease Society has found evidence that over 40% of all Alzheimer’s cases are caused by diet. But it may not be the kind of diet you think. Researchers at the University of Copenhagen say their study showed that a diet high in full-fat likely postpones the aging of the brain, an insight that could have huge implications for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Another study by neuroscientists at NYU Lagone Medical Center found that diets with fewer calories from carbohydrates can help slow certain aspects of aging and chronic disease in humans.

So, what should we be eating to help diminish our risk (or the progression) of Alzheimer’s?

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Leafy greens, fruits, berries and fish are just some of the foods that are part of the MIND diet

MIND diet
The latest scientific research has shown that a MIND Diet could be the best option for people with a high risk of Alzheimer’s.

The study, conducted by researchers at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, found that strict adherence to either a Mediterranean, MIND, or DASH diet significantly reduces one’s chances of developing Alzheimer’s disease, by 54, 53 and 39 per cent respectively. However, the MIND diet was the most effective in countering the disease when not followed strictly. Those who loosely followed the MIND diet still saw a 35 per cent risk reduction.

The MIND diet stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay. It is very similar to a Mediterranean diet, which focuses on eating vegetable, whole grains, nuts, beans, fish, poultry, olive oil and even wine in moderation. The point of difference, however, is that it has an increased emphasis on leafy greens and berries.

The diet also flags five unhealthy food groups: red meat, butter and stick margerine, cheese, pastries and sweets, and fried or fast food.

MIND DIET guideline

  • Leafy green vegetables – 6 servings per week
    • spinach, kale, swiss chard, beet greens, broccoli, lettuce, collard, rapini, aragula
  • Other vegetables – at least 1 serving per day
    • Eat a variety of orange red, yellow, purple, white/tan and other green vegetables
  • Berries – at least 2 servings per week
    • such as blueberries and strawberries
  • Nuts – at least 5 servings per week
    • such as walnuts, almonds, cashews
  • Legumes – at least 4 servings per week
    • such as lentils and beans
  • Whole grains – at least 4 servings per week
    • such as brown rice, quinoa, oats, whole grain pasta, bread or cereal
  • Fish – at least 1 serving per week
    • such as salmon, trout, sardines and herring
  • Poultry – at least 2 servings per week
    • And eat less red meat!
  • Olive Oil – Use as your primary cooking oil
    • try using extra-virgin olive oil
  • Wine – one serving per day
    • Low servings of alcohol have anti-inflammatory effects on the brain so yoyu can still enjoy a guilt-free glass of wine during dinner!

Other ways to reduce risk
There are also a number of environmental factors that can limit your risk of developing dementia. These include regular physical exercise, avoiding smoking, only drinking light to moderate amounts of alcohol and maintaining a socially and mentally active lifestyle.

For more information about dementia visit Alzheimer's Australia or call the National Dementia helpline on 1800 100 500.

Have you or someone you love had any personal experience with Alzheimer's disease? Join the conversation below...