January is Alzheimer’s Awareness Month. More than 747,000 Canadians live with dementia — a loss of brain function associated with memory, language, and judgment — or Alzheimer’s disease — an irreversible, neurodegenerative disease that destroys brain cells. Worldwide, that number grows to about 44 million.
Alzheimer’s Disease is the most common cause of dementia in Canadian seniors and results in the damage and death of brain cells over time. Scientists believe this results from the failure of specific brain proteins to function properly. The signs include difficulty with memory that affects your day-to-day activities, troubles with tasks you are familiar with and you have problems remembering the names of family members.
While Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are often used interchangeably, according to the Alzheimer Society of Canada, they are not the same. Dementia is used to define a set of symptoms caused by disorders that affect the brain. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause for dementia and accounts for 60 to 80 per cent of all diagnoses.
The rise in the numbers of cases of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia has been called a global crisis, and though there is no cure, there are ways to modify your risk. Many of us understand that exercise and a balanced diet can help keep our bodies healthy. But what about our minds? Specialists recommend a number of activities to help keep aging minds agile and potentially stave off dementia: crossword puzzles, memory games or learning a new skill. But what about eating well to help with our heads? Is there such a thing as “brain food” and can nutrition play a role in the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s?
The nutrition connection
In terms of the prevention of conditions like Alzheimer’s, the best available evidence points to what is known as the MIND Diet, which stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay diet
In terms of the preventing neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s, the best available evidence points to what is known as the MIND diet. MIND stands for the Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay diet which combines the highly popular DASH diet (low sodium) and the equally well-known Mediterranean diet (low-meat). The foods consumed most frequently in this dietary pattern have been regularly associated with Alzheimer’s risk reduction, and include leafy green vegetables, berries, nuts, fish and legumes.
While we tend to use the term “brain food” to describe foods that may benefit your brain, there is no single ingredient that can definitively stave off neurological diseases, or even boost cognition. However, there are nutrients and proteins that, as part of a holistic diet, can help protect your brain.
Let’s took a look at the components of the MIND diet. Leafy green vegetables like kale, spinach, collards, and broccoli are rich in brain-healthy nutrients like vitamin K, lutein, folate, and beta carotene. Berries, especially blueberries and strawberries contain flavonoids, which help improve memory. Nuts, particularly walnuts, have also been shown to benefit memory, and also contain a type of omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which helps lower blood pressure and protects arteries. Fish like salmon and cod are a good source of omega-3 fatty acids and other fats that have been linked to lower blood levels of beta-amyloid—the protein found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease.
The good, the bad, the ugly
Given that the DASH diet is characteristically low in sodium and the Mediterranean Diet is low in saturated fat, it’s worth looking at — and potentially limiting — foods that are high in both.
Processed red meat. In addition to containing potentially harmful preservatives, processed red meat products tend to be among the highest in both sodium and saturated fat. Items like salami, sausages, bacon and hot dogs are the ones to be the most mindful of. French researchers even found a possible connection between diets high in processed meats and a higher risk of developing dementia.
Grain-based snacks and desserts. Cakes, cookies, brownies and muffins tend to pack a punch in both the sodium and saturated fat category. Preparing them at home, where you can control the ingredients used, may be a decent compromise.
Cheese. Statistically speaking cheese is a major contributor of both sodium and saturated fat to the average Canadian diet. Taking the time to read product labels and compare your cheeses for the selections lowest in these categories will certainly help. It is worth noting however, that a recent study looking at the connection between food and cognition did show eating cheese — and drinking red wine — “responsibly” improved protection against cognitive issues. But there was one caveat, according to researchers: if you are already at risk for Alzheimer’s disease, you should pay attention to your intake.
While we don’t know yet for sure how to protect our brains from these devastating neurological diseases, we do know that our best chance is a healthy lifestyle that includes exercise, quality sleep and of course, nutritious food.
Andy is a registered dietitian and author who has operated a private practice in Toronto since 2015. He spends his free time eating, writing and talking about kale @AndyTheRD. He can be reached at AndyTheRD.com
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