Food That Fuels Your Brain

Feed Your Head: Links Between Nutrition and Dementia

Do you have a family history of neurological disorders like dementia or Alzheimer’s? It can be tough to see a loved one struggle with these conditions. As we age, the fear of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease looms in our minds. Memory loss and cognitive decline are becoming  more common and are even starting to develop at an earlier age. When was the last time you heard someone joke, “I can’t even remember what I had for lunch yesterday,” or walk into a room and forget why they went there in the first place? Many consider this a normal part of aging and accept that there isn’t anything that can be done about it. What if the foods you eat every day could reduce your risk of developing these debilitating conditions? While genetics and environmental factors do play a role in developing these conditions, nutrition can be a powerful tool for preventing and managing them. 

Before we go any further, let’s define what is meant by dementia and Alzheimer’s and clarify the difference. Dementia is a broad term for a specific set of symptoms. Difficulties with memory, language, problem-solving, and other intellectual skills are typical dementia symptoms. Doctors use the type or location of changes in the brain to identify the form of dementia. These changes include accumulation of abnormal proteins, inflammation and death of neurons, and damage to blood vessels or brain tissue from decreased blood flow, oxygen, or nutrients. The most common type is Alzheimer’s disease, which accounts for 60-80% of all dementias. It is associated with the accumulation of abnormal proteins and the decline and death of neurons in the brain. The second most common type is vascular dementia, caused by blood vessel damage that results in brain injury. The brain changes seen in Alzheimer’s disease are the most common contributors to dementia. (1)

While the causes of dementia may be complex and varied, one thing is clear: it is a growing issue that we cannot ignore. As of 2016, 10% of people 65 and older have dementia. An estimated 6.7 million Americans age 65 and older, or 1 in 9 people, have Alzheimer’s dementia. The number of Americans with dementia is expected to grow with the aging population because the diagnosis of dementia is more common with advancing age. However, even though rates of diagnosis increase with age, the number of cases in younger individuals is also increasing. About 110 of every 100,000 people ages 30-64, or about 200,000 Americans, have younger-onset dementia (1).

Dementia and cardiovascular disease share many risk factors. Dementia, like cardiovascular disease, can take decades to show clinical signs. Although this data appears dismal, lifestyle modifications can reverse this trend.  Multiple lifestyle interventions can reduce the risk of dementia and, in some cases, improve symptoms. Research shows that exercise and good quality sleep can greatly affect brain health and improve cognitive function (2). Nutrition is another aspect of lifestyle that can have dramatic effects on the brain and play a role in reducing dementia symptoms. Here are a few specific dietary changes, how they affect brain health and how we can prevent or improve dementia symptoms. 

Avoid Saturated Fat
Typically, we think of atherosclerosis, the thickening or hardening of arteries caused by plaque buildup, as a condition that affects the heart. However, it can affect blood vessels all over your body, including your brain. The plaque buildup results from the consumption of high levels of cholesterol and saturated fats. Even though cholesterol is required for our cells to function correctly, the human body can produce all that it needs, so consuming it in food is unnecessary and can be harmful to our health. Research has shown that those with Alzheimer’s have significantly more cholesterol in their brains than those who don’t have Alzheimer’s. Therefore, avoid consuming dairy, meats, added oils, and fried foods to reduce your risk of atherosclerosis and Alzheimer’s (2).

Increase Fruits and Vegetables
Fruits and vegetables contain compounds, such as polyphenols and flavonoids, that support brain health (3). Research shows people of all ages should consume a variety of fruits and vegetables, and that eating them early in life can help ward off future cognitive damage (4). Many different fruits and vegetables contain protective phytonutrients, but the ones that appear to be most beneficial are green leafy vegetables and berries. Green leafy vegetables contain many nutrients and bioactive compounds, including vitamin K, lutein, nitrate, and folate. Even just 1/2 to 1 cup daily may help slow cognitive decline with aging (5). Berries, specifically blueberries, contain unique antioxidant pigments. Studies have shown that blueberries improve memory and slow the rates of cognitive decline. Eating a daily handful of berries may dramatically slow your brain’s aging (6).

Filling Up On Fiber
Fiber can reduce the risk of many chronic diseases that increase the risk of dementia, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and high cholesterol. A study from 2022 showed that individuals who consumed higher amounts of dietary fiber had lower rates of dementia. Several mechanisms could have contributed to this result. First, fiber helps reduce blood pressure and cholesterol, which lowers the risk of vascular dementia. Secondly, fiber is helpful for bacteria in the gut that produces beneficial compounds that may reduce brain inflammation (7).

Omega-3 Fatty Acids
The body converts omega-3 fatty acids to DHA, which is vital for a developing brain. It has also been shown to be protective in an aging brain. As we age, our brains actually shrink in size. Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to preserve brain function and structure. Some algae supplements, nuts, and seeds can be a good source of these fatty acids (8,9). 

Even though the statistics for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease seem grim, remember that lifestyle can significantly reduce your risk factors. We can use food and the other aspects of lifestyle as preventive medicine. Make exercise, restorative sleep, and nutrition top priorities to keep your brain functioning at its best. The choices we make today really do shape the memories we have tomorrow. Blueberries and pumpkins seeds on a bed of field greens, anyone?

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1.) 2023 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures. (2023). Alzheimer's Dementia, 19(4), 1598–1695. https://doi.org/10.1002/alz.13016
2.) Greger, M. (2018). In How not to die: Discover the foods scientifically proven to prevent and reverse disease (pp. 51–61). Pan Books.
3.) Yeh, T. S., Yuan, C., Ascherio, A., Rosner, B. A., Willett, W. C., & Blacker, D. (2021). Long-term Dietary Flavonoid Intake and Subjective Cognitive Decline in US Men and Women. Neurology, 97(10), e1041–e1056. https://doi.org/10.1212/WNL.0000000000012454
4.) Mao, X., Chen, C., Xun, P., Daviglus, M. L., Steffen, L. M., Jacobs, D. R., Van Horn, L., Sidney, S., Zhu, N., Qin, B., & He, K. (2019). Intake of Vegetables and Fruits Through Young Adulthood Is Associated with Better Cognitive Function in Midlife in the US General Population. The Journal of nutrition, 149(8), 1424–1433. https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/nxz076
5.) Morris, M. C., Wang, Y., Barnes, L. L., Bennett, D. A., Dawson-Hughes, B., & Booth, S. L. (2018). Nutrients and bioactives in green leafy vegetables and cognitive decline: Prospective study. Neurology, 90(3), e214– 222. https://doi.org/10.1212/WNL.0000000000004815
6.) Devore, E. E., Kang, J. H., Breteler, M. M., & Grodstein, F. (2012). Dietary intakes of berries and flavonoids in relation to cognitive decline. Annals of neurology, 72(1), 135–143. https://doi.org/10.1002/ana.23594
7.) Solan, M. (2022, June 1). A high-fiber diet may reduce the risk of dementia. Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/a-high-fiber-diet-may-reduce-the-risk-of-dementia
8.) Kassam, S., Kassam, Z., & Simon, L. (2022). Plant-Based Nutrition and Alzheimer’s Prevention. In Plant-based nutrition in clinical practice (pp. 219–224). Hammersmith Health Books.
9) Greger, M. (2016, September 30). Should Vegans take DHA to preserve brainfunction? NutritionFacts.org. https://nutritionfacts.org/video/should-vegans-take-dha-to-preserve-brain-function

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