Evidence continues to mount that lifestyle and diet may play a role in reducing your risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. Just as a heart-healthy diet reduces your risk of heart disease, a similar diet seems to also contribute to Alzheimer's prevention by reducing some risks.
This brain-healthy diet generally avoids saturated fats and cholesterol, and emphasizes dark-skinned fruits and vegetables (rich in anti-oxidants) and coldwater fish (which contain omega-3 fatty acids).
The Connections Between Diet and Alzheimer's Disease
It has become more accepted that the same medical conditions (diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol) and lifestyle factors (lack of exercise, poor diet, smoking, obesity) that lead to stroke and heart disease also lead to a higher risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. One possibility is that factors that affect blood vessels throughout the body also affect blood vessels in the brain. Many studies have now found that people who eat a heart-healthy diet also have a better chance of not developing Alzheimer's.
The Mediterranean Diet and Its Link to Dementia Prevention
In a now well-known study published in 2006, people who most closely followed the Mediterranean diet had the lowest Alzheimer's risk. People who most closely adhered to the diet had a 40% lower risk than those who were least likely to follow the diet. Emphasis is on eating fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans and grains. Red meat and poultry are eaten only rarely, and olive oil and fatty fish are the main sources of fat in the diet.
New Findings Go Beyond the Mediterranean Diet
In the latest study, published in April 2010, over 2,000 elderly New Yorkers who were dementia free were followed for almost 4 years. In that time, 253 subjects developed Alzheimer's disease, and the dietary patterns of all subjects were characterized and analyzed.
The dietary pattern that was associated with the least risk of developing Alzheimer's was characterized by higher intakes of nuts, fish, tomatoes, poultry, cruciferous vegetables, fruits, salad dressing (oil and vinegar) and dark green leafy vegetables. It also consisted of a lower intake of high-fat dairy products, red meat, organ meat, and butter.
Those people in the study who strongly adhered to this dietary pattern were 38% less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease compared with those who were least likely to adhere to this dietary pattern.
Conclusions About Alzheimer's Prevention and Diet
Since many diets generally do no harm and may have significant benefits, these findings should motivate all of us concerned about developing Alzheimer's disease to think more about improving our diet. This latest study is far from perfect: We still don't know how much and for how long specific foods affect disease risk, and we don't know how nutrition and genes interact to affect disease risk. But since we can't control our age and our family history, focusing on healthy eating seems to be a smart approach.
Gu Y, PhD., Nieves J, PhD. et al. "Food Combination and Alzheimer Disease Risk" Arch Neurol. 2010;67(6)
Scarmeas N. MD, Stern Y, PhD et al. "Mediterranean Diet and Risk for Alzheimer's Disease" Ann Neurol 2006;59:912-921.