The numbers are staggering. A 2013 study in the journal Neurology found that the number of people with Alzheimer’s disease will jump from 4.7 million to 13.8 million by 2050. Associated health care costs will skyrocket from $200 billion to more than $1 trillion by 2050, increasing the cost of Medicaid and Medicare by 500 percent.
The disease is incurable. But research is at a critical turning point and shows that diet and exercise can play crucial roles in reducing the odds of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
Fighting Debilitating Memory LossThe latest scientific findings show that diet and lifestyle changes can create a barrier against cognitive decline.
Researchers from the Chicago Health and Aging Project analyzed the diets of thousands of people over years. The findings are groundbreaking: Saturated “bad” fat—found in milk, cheese, and meat—is strongly linked to the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, increasing risk more than threefold. Trans fats increase risk fivefold. Avoiding these fats can cut risk dramatically.
Foods rich in vitamin E, such as broccoli, walnuts, almonds, and sunflower seeds, also reduced dementia risk by as much as 70 percent. Other studies show that foods overly rich in iron or copper can promote cognitive loss, while folate, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12 may help protect the memory.
This brain-healthy diet is almost identical to the diet that helps prevent stroke, heart disease, obesity, and other chronic diseases: a low-fat diet of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes. Combining this with physical and mental exercise, and avoiding harmful toxins such as aluminum in supplements or cookware, can maximize protection for the brain.
Power Foods for the Brain’s Brain-Boosting DietPower Foods for the Brain, the latest book by Physicians Committee president and nutrition researcher Neal Barnard, M.D., presents this latest, compelling research on nutrition’s surprising effects on the brain. Dr. Barnard lays out a three-step plan to protect the mind and strengthen the memory: Put power foods to work, strengthen your brain, and defeat memory threats. The book also includes 75 power-food recipes, sample mental stimulation exercises, guides to choosing aluminum-free foods and medicines, and a guide to physical exercise.
Learn more about brain health and purchase Power Foods for the Brain at PCRM.org/Brain.
- Saturated fats, found in meats, dairy products, and eggs appear to encourage the production of beta-amyloid plaques within the brain. The Chicago Health and Aging Study reported in the Archives of Neurology in 2003 that people consuming the most saturated fat had more than triple the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, compared with people who generally avoided these foods.
- Trans fats, found in doughnuts and snack pastries, have been shown to increase Alzheimer’s risk more than fivefold. These “bad fats” raise cholesterol levels and apparently increase production of the beta-amyloid protein that collects in plaques in the brain as Alzheimer’s disease begins.
- Excess iron can build up in the brain, sparking the production of damaging free radicals. Sources of excess iron include cast-iron cookware, meats, and iron supplements.
- Excess copper impairs cognition—even in mid-adulthood—and ends up in the plaques of Alzheimer’s disease. It comes from copper pipes and nutritional supplements.
- Aluminum has been found in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients, so it pays to err on the side of caution. Avoid uncoated aluminum cookware and read labels when buying baking powder, antacids, and processed foods.
- Nuts and seeds are rich in vitamin E, which has been shown to help prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Especially good sources are almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, pine nuts, pecans, pistachios, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, and flaxseed. Just 1 ounce—a small handful—each day is plenty.
- Blueberries and grapes get their deep colors from anthocyanins, powerful antioxidants shown to improve learning and recall in studies at the University of Cincinnati.
- Sweet potatoes are the dietary staple of Okinawans, the longest-lived people on Earth, who are also known for maintaining mental clarity into old age. Sweet potatoes are extremely rich in beta-carotene, a powerful antioxidant.
- Green leafy vegetables provide iron in a form that is more absorbable when the body needs more and less absorbable when you already have plenty, protecting you from iron overload which can harm the brain. Green vegetables are also loaded with folate, an important brain-protecting B-vitamin.
- Beans and chickpeas have vitamin B6 and folate, as well as protein and calcium, with no saturated fat or trans fat.
- Vitamin B12 is essential for healthy nerves and brain cells. While many people have trouble absorbing vitamin B12 from foods, B12 in supplements is highly absorbable. Together, folate, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12 eliminate homocysteine, which can build up in the bloodstream—rather like factory waste—and damage the brain.