Can Diet Prevent Alzheimer’s

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Diet and Alzheimer's

Preserving Your Memories In Your Golden Years

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

can diet prevent alzheimer'sAlzheimer’s is a scary disease. There is so much to look forward to in our golden years. We want to enjoy the fruits of our years of hard work. We want to enjoy our grandkids and perhaps even our great-grandkids. More importantly, we want to be able to pass on our accumulated experiences and wisdom to future generations.

Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia have the potential to rob us of everything that makes life worth living. What is the use of having a healthy body, family, and fortune if we can’t even recognize the people around us?

That is why anything that might reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s is BIG news, which brings me to the recent buzz about the MIND diet.  Can diet prevent Alzheimer’s.

 

What Is The MIND Diet?

the mind dietThe MIND diet is the brainchild of Dr. Martha Clare Morris, a nutritional epidemiologist at Rush University Medical Center. She started with the Mediterranean and DASH diets, which I have described in a previous issue of “Health Tips From the Professor,” because both of those diets have been shown to reduce the risk of dementia. Then she researched the literature for studies linking specific foods and nutrients to improving cognition and/or preventing dementia.

In short, she combined the brain-healthy features of the Mediterranean and DASH diets and further modified them based on the best scientific data available. She emphasized some components of those two diets and minimized others. She also modified the number of servings of some foods, based on the best available evidence.

She acknowledged that when she eliminated or reduced foods that were parts of those two diets, it did not mean those foods might not play an important role in preserving cognitive function as we age. It simply meant we don’t currently have strong evidence to prove their beneficial effects in preserving cognition.

The MIND diet is a whole food, plant-based, diet.

 

  • It includes 10 “brain-healthy” food groups: green leafy vegetables, other vegetables, nuts, berries, beans, whole grains, fish, poultry, olive oil, and wine (in moderation, too much alcohol kills brain cells).
  • It limits red & processed meats, butter and margarine, cheese, pastries & sweets, and fried & fast foods.
  • It neither recommends nor discourages low fat dairy foods and fruit other than berries. Dr. Morris notes that while those are healthy foods, they have no proven benefit for preventing cognitive decline.

 

Can Diet Prevent Alzheimer’s?

 

As you can tell, a lot of thought went into the design of the MIND diet, but does it work? Dr. Morris partnered with 5 of her colleagues at Rush University Medical Center to test the hypothesis (Morris et al., Alzheimer’s & Dementia 11: 1007-1014, 2015). They enrolled 923 participants, ages 59 to 98 years (average age = 81) from retirement communities and senior public housing units in the Chicago area. All participants were free of Alzheimer’s disease when the study began.

doctor's studyAt the beginning of the study each participant filled out a detailed food frequency questionnaire. Participants were given an extensive physical and neurological exam designed to diagnose the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and/or dementia on an annual basis. Participants were followed for an average of 4.5 years, during which time 144 of the participants developed Alzheimer’s and another 14 developed non-Alzheimer’s dementia.

At the end of the study the food frequency data were analyzed to determine how closely participants adhered to the MIND diet, the Mediterranean diet, and the DASH diet.  Adherence to each of these diets was then correlated with the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. [To be perfectly clear, none of the participants were given any dietary instruction. Nor were they advised to change their diet. This study simply looked at the diets they were already eating and determined how closely their diet matched the standards set for MIND, Mediterranean, and DASH diets.] The results were striking:

  1. Strict adherence to all 3 diets significantly decreased the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. The decreased risk was:
    • 53% for the MIND diet.
    • 54% for the Mediterranean diet.
    • 39% for the DASH diet.
  2. When the investigators looked at moderate adherence to each of the diets, the MIND diet performed slightly better than the other two diets:
    • Moderate adherence to the MIND diet decreased Alzheimer’s risk by 35%.
    • Moderate adherence to the Mediterranean and DASH diets had no significant effect on Alzheimer’s risk.

What Does This Study Mean For You?

Dr. Morris concluded that healthy diets, such as the Mediterranean and DASH diets, provide substantial protection against dementia. She stated that as new studies come along, these diets can be modified to provide even better protection. She considers the MIND diet is the first step in that process.

alzheimer's riskA 53% decrease in Alzheimer’s risk is impressive. However, if you are really concerned about dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, you should think of diet as only one component of a holistic approach. As I described in a recent article How to Prevent Memory Loss, a holistic approach to preserving your cognitive function includes:

  • A healthy diet
  • B vitamins & omega-3s
  • Weight control
  • Exercise
  • Adequate sleep
  • Socialization
  • Memory training (mental exercise)

The Bottom Line

 

  1. The Mediterranean and DASH diets have already been shown to preserve mental function as we age, thus reducing the risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s.
  2. Martha Morris at Rush University Medical Center used the latest studies on specific foods and nutrients that preserve mental function to modify those diets into something she calls the MIND diet.
  3. Morris and colleagues at Rush then evaluated the effectiveness of all 3 diets on reducing Alzheimer’s risk. Strict adherence to all 3 diets significantly decreased the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. The decreased risk was:
    • 53% for the MIND diet.
    • 54% for the Mediterranean diet.
    • 39% for the DASH diet.
  4. When the investigators looked at moderate adherence to each of the diets, the MIND diet performed slightly better than the other two diets:
    • Moderate adherence to the MIND diet decreased Alzheimer’s risk by 35%.
    • Moderate adherence to the Mediterranean and DASH diets had no significant effect on Alzheimer’s risk.
  5. Morris concluded that healthy diets, such as the Mediterranean and DASH diets, provide substantial protection against dementia. However, she feels that as new studies come along, these diets can be modified to provide even better protection. She considers the MIND diet as the first step in that process.
  6. Healthy diet is only one component of a holistic approach for preserving mental function. Other components include:
    • B vitamins & omega-3s
    • Weight control
    • Exercise
    • Adequate sleep
    • Socialization
    • Memory training (mental exercise)

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Comments (2)

  • Barbara Wagner

    |

    I have a Shaklee distributor and have received your newsletter for years. I was at the recent Science Symposium in Portsmouth, NH.

    Re the Mind diet, I included an excerpt from your newsletter below. How do you reconcile a’ whole foods plant based diet’ and then include fish, poultry, meat and dairy as you’ve done below. I have found the research/writing done by T. Colin Campbell to be the most convincing case for a healthy diet (including for the brain). He recommends a whole foods plant based diet without animal products. Michael Greger, MD, and his book ‘How Not to Die’ also recommends a whole food plant based diet without animal products.

    ‘The MIND diet is a whole food, plant based, diet.

    • It includes 10 “brain-healthy” food groups: green leafy vegetables, other vegetables, nuts, berries, beans, whole grains, fish, poultry, olive oil, and wine (in moderation, too much alcohol kills brain cells).

    • It limits red & processed meats, butter and margarine, cheese, pastries & sweets, and fried & fast foods.

    • It neither recommends or discourages low fat dairy foods and fruit other than berries. Dr. Morris notes that while those

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      Dear Barbara,

      As Joe Friday used to say in the TV show “Dragnet”: “Just the facts, mam.” I am a big fan of a Vegan diet and the writings of T. Colin Campbell. However, the data are very clear that a plant based diet with some healthy animal proteins, such as the Mediterranean diet, also dramatically decreases the risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and dementia. The MIND and DASH diets are very closely related to the Mediterranean diet. I consider all of them healthy diets. Whether you want to go Vegan, Mediterranean, MIND or DASH is a matter of personal preference.

      Dr. Chaney

      Reply

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Latest Article

Should You Avoid Sugar Completely?

Posted October 24, 2017 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Is It The Sugar, Or Is It The Food?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

Should we avoid sugar completely?  Almost every expert agrees that Americans should cut down on the amount of sugar we are consuming. However, for some people this has become a “sugar phobia”. They have sworn that “sugar shall never touch their lips”. Not only do they avoid sugar sweetened sodas and junk food, but they also have become avid label readers. They scour the label of every food they see and reject foods they find any form of sugar listed as an ingredient. Is this degree of sugar avoidance justified?

 

Should We Avoid Sugar to Keep it From Killing Us?

 

Let me add some perspective:

  • If you just take studies about the dangers of sugar at face value, sugar does, indeed, look dangerous. Excess sugar consumption is associated with increased risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. However, when you look a little closer, you find that most of these studies have been done by looking at the correlation of each of these conditions with sugar sweetened beverage consumption (sodas and fruit juices).

A few studies have looked at the correlation of obesity and disease with total “added sugar” consumption. However, 71.6% of added sugar in the American diet comes from sugar sweetened beverages and junk food. None of the studies have looked at the sugar from healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. That’s because there is ample evidence that these foods decrease the risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

  • For example, if apples had a nutrition label, it would list 16 grams of sugar in a medium 80 calorie apple, which corresponds to about 80% of the calories in that apple. The sugar in an apple is about the same proportion of fructose and glucose found in high fructose corn syrup. Apples are not unique. The nutrition label would read about the same on most other fruits. Does that mean you should avoid sugar from all fruits? I think not.

Avoid Sugar or Avoid Certain Foods

 

avoid sugar from junk foodsThe obvious question is: “Why are the same sugars, in about the same amounts, unhealthy in sodas and healthy in fruits?” Let’s go back to those studies I just mentioned—the ones that are often used to vilify sugars. They are all association studies, the association of sugar intake with obesity and various diseases.

The weakness of association studies is the association could be with something else that is tightly correlated with the variable (sugar intake) that you are measuring. Could it be the food that is the problem, not the sugar?

If we look at healthy foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains) they are chock full of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, fiber, and (sometimes) protein. Fiber and protein slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream. As a result, blood sugar levels rise slowly and are sustained at relatively low levels for a substantial period of time.

In sodas there is nothing to slow the absorption of blood sugar. You get rapid rise in blood sugar followed by an equally rapid fall. The same is true of junk foods consisting primarily of sugar, refined flour and/or fat.  Avoid sugar from those types of foods.

Another consideration is something called caloric density. Here is a simple analogy. I used to explain the concept of caloric density to medical students in my teaching days. There are about the same number of calories in a 2-ounce candy bar and a pound of apples (around 278 in the 2-ounce candy bar and 237 in a pound of apples). You can eat a 2-ounce candy bar and still be hungry. If you eat a pound of apples you are done for a while. In this example, the 2-ounce candy bar had a high caloric density (a lot of calories in a small package). Perhaps a more familiar terminology would be the candy bar was just empty calories.

Are Sodas and Junk Foods Killing Us?

avoid sugar from candyPutting all that together, you can start to understand why the foods the sugars are in are more important than the sugars themselves. When you consume sugars in the form of sugar sweetened beverages or sugary junk foods, your appetite increases. We don’t know for sure whether it is the intense sweetness of those foods, the rapid increase and fall in blood sugar, or the high caloric density (lots of calories ina small package) that makes us hungrier. It doesn’t matter. We crave more food, and it isn’t usually fruits, vegetables, and complex carbohydrates we crave. It’s more junk. That sets in motion a predictable sequence of events.

  • We overeat. Those excess calories are stored as fat and we become obese. [Note: The low carb enthusiasts will tell you our fat stores come from carbohydrates alone. That is incorrect. All excess calories, whether from protein, fat, or carbohydrate, are stored as fat.]
  • It’s not just the fat you can see (belly fat) that is the problem. Some of that fat builds up in our liver and muscles. This sets up an unfortunate sequence of metabolic events.
  • The fat stores release inflammatory cytokines into our bloodstream. That causes inflammation. Inflammation increases the risk of many diseases including heart disease and cancer.
  • The fat stores also cause our cells to become resistant to insulin. That reduces the ability of our cells to take up glucose, which leads to hyperglycemia and type 2 diabetes. [Note: The low carb enthusiasts will tell you carbohydrates cause type 2 diabetes. That is also incorrect. It is our fat stores that cause insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. Our fat stores come from all excess calories, not just excess calories from carbohydrates.]
  • Insulin resistance also causes the liver to overproduce cholesterol and triglycerides and pump them into the bloodstream. That increases the risk of heart disease.
  • Sugar sweetened beverages and sugary junk foods also displace healthier foods from our diet. That leads to potential nutrient shortfalls that can increase our risk of many diseases.

However, none of this has to happen. The one thing that every successful diet has in common is the elimination of sodas, junk foods, fast foods and convenience foods. You should avoid sugar from those foods as much as possible. Once you eliminate those from your diet,you significantly enhance your chances of being at a healthy weight and being healthy long term.

 

What About Protein Supplements And Similar Foods?

Of course, the dilemma is what you, as an intrepid label reader, should do about protein supplements, meal replacement bars, or snack bars. They are supposed to be healthy, but the label lists one or more sugars. Even worse, the sugar content is higher than your favorite health guru recommends.  So, should you avoid sugar from supplements and the like?

In this case, a more useful concept is glycemic index, which is a measure of the effect of the food on your blood sugar levels. Healthy foods like apples may have a high sugar content, but they havea low glycemic index.

avoid sugar and consume protein to slow absorbptionThe same is true for the protein supplements and bars you are considering. Rather than looking at the sugar content, you should be looking for the term “low glycemic” on the label. That means there is enough fiber and protein in the food to slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream and stabilize your blood sugar levels.

What Does This Mean For You?

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not advocating for unlimited consumption of sugar. We should work on ways to avoid sugar or reduce the amount of sugar in our diet. On the other hand, we don’t need to become so strict that we and our family need to eat foods that taste like cardboard. We also don’t want to replace natural sugars with artificial sweeteners. I have warned about the dangers of artificial sweeteners previously.

We can go a long way towards reducing sugar by just eliminating sodas, other sugar sweetened beverages, junk foods, fast foods, convenience foods, and pastries from our diet. When considering fast foods and convenience foods, we should check the label for hidden sugar. For example, some Starbucks drinks are mostly sugar. When considering foods that are supposed to be healthy, we should look for the term “low glycemic” on the label.

So we don’t have to avoid sugar completely, but we should reduce sugar from sugar sweetened beverages and junk food.

 

The Bottom Line

 

We need to keep warnings about the dangers of sugar in perspective:

  • The studies showing that sugar consumption leads to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease have all been done with sodas and junk foods.
  • Many fruits have just as much sugar as a soda. They also contain about the same proportion of fructose and glucose as high fructose corn syrup. Yet we know fruits are good for us.
  • Diets rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains decrease our risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
  • That is because the sugar in whole foods is generally present along with fiber and protein, which slows the absorption of sugar and prevents the blood sugar spikes we get with sodas and junk foods.
  • In the case of prepared foods like protein supplements, you should look for “low glycemic” on the label rather than sugar content. Low glycemic means that there is enough fiber and protein in the product to slow the absorption of sugar and prevent blood sugar spikes.
  • Don’t misunderstand me. I am not advocating for unlimited consumption of sugar. We should all work on ways to avoid sugar from junk foods or to reduce the amount of sugar in our diet. On the other hand, we don’t need to become so strict that we and our family need to eat foods that taste like cardboard. We also don’t want to replace natural sugars with artificial sweeteners.
  • We can go a long way towards reducing sugar by just eliminating sodas, other sugar sweetened beverages, junk foods, fast foods, convenience foods, and pastries from our diet. When considering fast foods and convenience foods, we should check the label for hidden sugar. When considering foods that are supposed to be healthy, we should look for the term “low glycemic” on the label.

For more details, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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