Through witnessing the effect Alzheimer’s has on a family member’s emotional wellbeing and their path to slow mental deterioration; spurred my desire to pursue a degree in preventative care. As a young person, I used to wonder how a patient got this disease, and if there was a solution to prevent it. Most cases of Alzheimer’s occur later in life but alarmingly, it’s beginning to also appear in younger people.
As the fields of lifestyle medicine and preventative care grow, researchers have found that a whole foods, plant-based diet is key to reduce the risk of this devastating disease. In the case of Alzheimer’s disease, our genes may not be our determined destiny. The question that we need to ask is: how can we alter the course of a disease that might be lurking in the future of our overall health?
Diet and mental health
Although it’s not as often discussed, our mental health has the same degree of importance as our physical health. And, just as a good diet is key to good physical health, it’s also the key to prevent Alzheimer’s disease and shield our mental health in the long run. In fact, it has been found that diet is interrelated with many conditions such as dementia, Alzheimer’s, and many other diseases of the mind. Astonishingly, studies indicate that diet can influence the body’s nervous system. A higher chance of cognitive decline is seen in patients that indulge in a diet rich in saturated fats, dairy, meat products, fat, and sugar.
Another interesting report is that neurodegenerative disease risks are lowered with a plant-based diet that is high in antioxidants, fiber, and low in saturated fats. It’s also been shown that cognitive health is improved with a whole foods, plant-based diet. Individuals in mid-life with plant-based diets low in saturated fats demonstrated a lower risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease later in life. The middle-aged group of low-risk patients was then compared to individuals with unhealthy diets high in meat and dairy food. The eye-opening results were that the latter group had a much higher risk for Alzheimer’s disease than the patients with a healthy diet. The healthy diet patients had an 86-90 % decreased risk of dementia and a 90-92% decreased risk of Alzheimer’s disease compared with the patients with an unhealthy diet. A follow-up long-term study over 20-30 years found that individuals with higher cholesterol levels in mid-life had a 50% higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
Even though Alzheimer’s disease is affected by genetics and age-related factors, it does not lessen the fact that the risk of Alzheimer’s is heightened by increased blood lipids, blood pressure, and diabetes.
Prevent Alzheimer’s with your diet
In 2013, the International Conference on Nutrition and the Brain agreed on evidence-based guidelines for prevention of Alzheimer’s disease.
- Decrease saturated fats, trans fat, hydrogenated fats. They agreed that decreasing the intake of saturated fats (dairy products meats and certain oils) and trans fats or hydrogenated fats (processed foods) reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. The replacements they recommended are vegetables, pulses, fruits, and whole grains.
- Eat foods high in Vitamin E. Vitamin E should come from food sources rather than supplements. Consume foods high in vitamin E, such as seeds, nuts, green leafy vegetables, and whole grains. Vitamin B12 or fortified foods should be a part of the diet. Patients must be cautious when using multiple vitamins by choosing supplements without iron and copper. I
- Avoid products with aluminum. You should avoid antacids, baking powder, and products containing aluminum.
- Do aerobic exercise. You must add aerobic exercise to your schedule, which will cause blood flow to the brain to increase neural connections. One practical example of this is 40 minutes of brisk walking three times per week.
These are all practical and doable guidelines we can all follow, right?
I should add that there is one more power food that can boost the protection of the nervous system: berries. Blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries are effective because of their high flavonoid content. Flavonoids are considered neuroprotective and only found in plants. In one study with approximately 130,00 subjects over the course of 20 years, scientists found that individuals that consumed the most berries had a significantly lower risk of developing Parkinson’s disease. Increased intake of flavonoids slowed down cognitive decline.
The conclusion that these healthcare providers came to was that the whole foods, plant-based diet can protect the nervous system and reduce the risk of neurodegenerative diseases.
Compelling, isn’t it? After realizing how berries can positively impact my cognitive health, I quickly compiled a list of dishes with blueberries to implement in my meals. Here are two that are easy and creative.
- 1 package (6 ounces) frozen raspberries, divided
- 1/2 cup almond milk
- 2 medium bananas
- 1 shredded coconut
- 1 cocoa nibs (I substitute this with carob chips)
- 2 tablespoons dried apricots, chopped
- 35 pistachios, shelled
- 10 fresh or frozen blueberries
Blend the smoothie base ingredients, pour the smoothie into a bowl, then top with the toppings.
- 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder (I substitute this with carob powder)
- 2 tablespoons boiling water
- 2 tablespoons almond butter
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/4 cup (1 ounce) dried tart cherries, chopped
- 1/3 cup shredded unsweetened coconut, toasted
- 1/3 cup (2 ounces) Driscoll’s Blueberries
- 1/2 cup chopped roasted almonds
- 8 Medjool dates, pitted and chopped (4 ounces)
- In a small bowl, combine cocoa and boiling water. Stir until well mixed and let stand 5 minutes.
- In a food processor, combine dates, almond butter and salt, and process to a fine paste (about the same consistency of peanut butter), about 1 minute. Add cocoa mixture and process until well combined, about 30 seconds. Transfer puree to a medium bowl. Stir in cherries and coconut until well combined.
- To form the bites, spray a small amount of non-stick cooking spray on the palms of your hands. Scoop 1 tablespoon cocoa and nut mixture and place it in the center of your hand and pat down to flatten. Place 2 to 3 blueberries in the center of mixture. Fold mixture over to enrobe the berries and gently roll between the palms of your hands. Roll in the toasted almonds and set on a baking sheet. Repeat with remaining mixture. Chill 1 hour before serving.