Alzheimer's isn't something you suddenly develop, like an infection. It's also not a part of the natural consequence of ageing, nor is it genetic. Only 1% is caused by genes. It is a slow, progressive disease like many others, with identifiable risk factors and causes, meaning it is something we can help to prevent. In fact, studies show that half of the risk for developing dementia and Alzheimer's is preventable and most of this risk relates to nutrition and lifestyle factors.
Education charity, Food for the Brain Foundation, aims to increase awareness about simple dietary and lifestyle-related factors to reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer's. The charity provides a Six Step Alzheimer's Action Plan to follow:
- Eat Fish and Seeds
- Eat fish three to four times a week, with at least two servings of oily fish, as well as raw nuts, and seeds
- One portion of oily fish (salmon, mackerel, herrings, kippers, sardines or tuna) a week is associated with halving the risk of Alzheimer's
- Supplements of one kind of omega 3 fish oil, called DHA, have been shown to enhance memory in adults who don't eat fish, and to prevent memory loss in those in the early stages of memory decline
- It's not just oily fish. The more fish you eat, the better your memory test performance. Fish is also an excellent source of vitamins B12, D and choline, all essential for the brain
- Chia and flax seeds are another great source of omega 3.
- Up the Antioxidants
The more fruit and vegetables you eat, preferably around six 500g servings a day, the lower your risk of cognitive decline with vegetables being particularly protective.
- The best kinds of vegetables are carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, spinach and mushrooms
- The best fruits are berries, especially blueberries and strawberries
- The flavonoids and polyphenols, found in fruit and vegetables and associated with preserving memory are also found in tea, red wine and dark chocolate
- Supplementing both vitamin C (1g) and vitamin E combined is associated with halving the risk of Alzheimer's disease.
- Minimise Sugar and Refined Foods
Keeping your blood sugar level down, which also means you make less insulin, preserves your memory. That means avoiding sugar as much as possible and eating slow-releasing 'whole' carbohydrate foods including wholegrain bread or pasta and oat cakes.
- Eating carbohydrate foods with protein, for example brown rice with fish, or porridge oats with seeds, further reduces the glycaemic load (GL) of a meal
- Best fruits in this respect are berries, cherries and plums, while grapes, raisins and bananas are high GL
- These kinds of foods are consistent with a Mediterranean diet which has also been shown to reduce risk
- Eat your fruit, don't drink it. Fruit juice has a lot of sugar in it
- Eating white bread is associated with a poorer cognitive test performance, whereas high fibre bread is associated with better performance.
- Vitamin B Supplements & Homocysteine Levels
Having a higher intake and blood level of vitamin B12 and folic acid is associated with a quarter of the risk of developing Alzheimer's.
- Vitamin B6, B12 and folic acid, especially in combination, lower blood levels of homocysteine, which is a key predictor of risk
- Lowering your homocysteine, if above 10mcmol/l, by supplementing high dose B6 (20mg), folic acid (800mcg) and B12 (500mcg) has been shown to greatly reduce the rate of brain shrinkage and memory loss in those at risk of Alzheimer's
- It is important to check your homocysteine level and, if above 10, speak with your doctor about supplementing high doses of B vitamins. Otherwise, supplement a daily multivitamin or B complex
- B12 absorption can greatly worsen with age, and is inhibited by the diabetes drug metformin, and antacid 'proton-pump inhibitor' (PPI) medication. If you are taking these be sure your GP checks your homocysteine level.
- Go Green (Tea) and Limit Coffee
While the risk of coffee has not been confirmed, drinking lots of coffee does raise homocysteine levels and promote the excretion of protective B vitamins. For example, two cups of coffee raises homocysteine by 11% in 4 hours.
- Green and regular tea on the other hand, are associated with a lower risk of cognitive impairment. It seems sensible to limit coffee to one a day and then drink tea, ideally green, instead.
- Keep Physically, Mentally & Socially Active
The adage if you don't use it, you lose it is remarkably prescient.
- Keeping fit, learning new things to stimulate your mind and staying in touch with friends and family all help to reduce your risk
- There may also be a benefit in exercises that require more mind-body coordination, such as tai chi or yoga
- Exercising outdoors - we make vitamin D in the presence of sunlight
These activities also help to reduce stress, which is another prevention step in the right direction, as is keeping your blood pressure down.
The Food for the Brain Foundation also offers a free online cognitive function test that checks four key types of cognitive ability that decline in dementia. The test produces a personalised report on how to improve cognitive health via nutrition and reduce your risk of Alzheimer's and Dementia.
Take the Test