Each June, The Alzheimer’s Association sponsors Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness month. The brain is, without a doubt, a very vital organ. Any damage or injury to the brain can be life-altering. Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia and is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States.
The good news is there are things you can do to improve your brain health and specifically nutrition changes that you can make. Understanding a little about the brain and Alzheimer’s disease is helpful as well.
Your brain has many sections responsible for so many activities that happen on a daily basis. From thinking and learning to hearing and smelling, you have a lot of nerve cell networks that work together to communicate and make sure you are able to function normally. When there is an interruption in service or a breakdown in how the cells should function, they lose their ability to do their job properly and eventually die. These changes in the brain are permanent.
Alzheimer’s is a type of dementia that causes problems with memory, thinking and even behavior. Symptoms of this disease usually develop slowly and progress over time.
Once diagnosed, a person with Alzheimer’s lives an average of four to eight years but can live as long as 20 years.
The most common early symptom of Alzheimer’s is difficulty remembering newly learned information. Typically, Alzheimer’s first affects the portion of your brain responsible for learning. As it progresses through other parts of the brain, symptoms become more severe. These symptoms can include disorientation, behavior and mood changes, worsening confusion about places, times and events, paranoia or unfounded suspicions about family, friends or caregivers and eventually difficulty speaking, swallowing or walking.
Alzheimer’s progresses through three stages, but there may be times when a stage overlaps. In other words, a person can be exhibiting mostly early stage symptoms, but a middle-stage symptom might pop up as well. They aren’t completely out of early-stage or completely in middle-stage. In the early stage, people may function independently but may have some memory lapses or have difficulty coming up with the right word or name for something.
In the middle stage, symptoms become more noticeable. Changes in sleep patterns may begin to occur. At this stage there is also an increased risk of wandering or getting lost. There is generally increased confusion even regarding their own personal information such as where they live, what their phone number is or their date of birth.
In the final or late stage of the disease, most people with Alzheimer’s will require round-the-clock care and help with their activities of daily living. They generally will have difficulty with communicating and physical abilities will decline further. They also will become more vulnerable to infections.
The MIND diet was created by researchers at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. MIND is an acronym for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay. It is a hybrid of the two diets that in past studies have been found to reduce the risk of cardiovascular conditions, like hypertension, heart attack and stroke. In other words, this hybrid way of eating can impact brain health.
One of the interesting findings is that when closely followed, the MIND diet lowered risk of Alzheimer’s disease by 53%. Even more significant is for people who only intermittently adhered to the diet still saw a 35% reduction in risk. With the Mediterranean diet or the DASH diet, risk reduction for Alzheimer’s was not seen unless the diet was strictly adhered to.
While all three diets focus on eating more plant based foods, the MIND diet sets itself apart by focusing on what they designate as “10 brain-friendly food groups.” These include green leafy vegetables, other vegetables, nuts, berries, whole grains, beans, fish, poultry, olive oil and wine. In the berry category, blueberries and strawberries were specifically recommended. Research has shown the slowest rate of cognitive decline in those who ate the most of these berries.
There are also five unhealthful food categories that the diet suggests you avoid. These include red meats, which should be eaten less than four times a week. It also included limiting butter to no more than one teaspoon per day. Cheese is limited to one serving or less per week. Pastries or other sweets should be limited to no more than four times per week although in some studies they were limited even more. Fried or fast food should be restricted to no more than one time per week.
Looking a little closer at the 10 brain-friendly foods, we see that leafy greens are recommended daily. Whether you choose to have a salad each day with greens or you like them prepared another way, they should definitely be on your menu. Other vegetables should be included at least once daily as well. Nuts can be a great snack and you should aim for at least five servings a week. The walnut is the champ when it comes to brain health.
As mentioned before, berries should be consumed at least twice a week. If you can get your hands on strawberries or blueberries, even better! At least four servings per week of beans or legumes help provide fuel for your brain. Three servings of whole grains per day is a good target to achieve. Fish, especially fatty fish, are known to have benefits on brain health.
Including at least two servings of poultry per week is associated with lower risk of Alzheimer’s. Olive oil should be your primary oil used. Always purchase the extra-virgin olive oil for the most health benefits. Finally, a glass of wine each day helps preserve memory and protect the brain. While low levels of alcohol can be beneficial, excess can be damaging to the brain.
We all get a little forgetful the older we get, but the change seen in people with Alzheimer’s takes that normal forgetfulness to the extreme and becomes life-changing not only for the person living with it, but their family as well. Simple swaps in your eating habits can be the ticket to slowing that cognitive decline and keeping your brain healthy.
Until next time … live healthy!
Kimberly Alton, RD, CSSD, LD, is the director of food and nutrition services at Carolina Pines Regional Medical Center.