Most people today know that the foods they eat regularly can reduce the risk of lethal events like heart attack and stroke. But did you know that it’s likely your diet affects dementia, too? The same foods that fight inflammation elsewhere in the body can also lower inflammation in the brain. Here’s a look at the research so far into the relationship between diet and dementia and how you can slow or even possibly prevent dementia. Eating a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, lean protein, and whole grains and avoiding overly processed foods, most fats, and excess sugar is the way to go.
Can Diet Influence Dementia?
Medical experts were once not sure if diet affects dementia. However, once researchers started studying links between diet and various health issues, they began to question the relationship between diet and dementia. If foods cause inflammation in the arteries (blood vessels) of the heart and limbs, scientists thought, wouldn’t they also cause inflammation of the brain that could lead to dementia?
While researchers still have not definitively proven that an inflammatory diet causes dementia, most evidence points that way. Several studies demonstrate that eating certain healthy foods and avoiding others (both discussed below) can reduce the risk of developing certain types of dementia related to brain inflammation. Check out a few facts from what scientists know so far:
- A study of seniors in Greece showed that the less inflammatory their diet, the lower their risk of developing dementia.
- Neuroinflammation, or inflammation of the brain, is likely mitigated by a diet high in antioxidants, such as vegetables, fruits, beans, tea, and coffee — common elements of the Mediterranean diet eaten in southern Europe, northern Africa, and the Middle East.
- A systematic review of all studies about diet and dementia showed an association between healthy eating using a Mediterranean diet and fewer problems with memory and thinking problems (cognition).
- The Mediterranean diet has multiple benefits, including reducing overall vascular inflammation, lowering cholesterol, and increasing protein levels in the brain that fight cell damage linked to Alzheimer’s disease, one type of dementia.
Is There a Diet to Help Slow Dementia?
As mentioned, the Mediterranean diet is an ideal one to adopt to reduce the risk of dementia and slow down any early dementia. The Mediterranean diet is the basis for the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet for high blood pressure and the MIND (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) diet to reduce the risk of brain problems as you age. These diets are very well studied and recommended by organizations like the American Heart Association.
If you look at places where people tend to live the longest and where seniors have fewer problems with heart disease, stroke, and dementia, you’ll find the area around the Mediterranean Sea at the top of the list. Their diet has evolved from what grows there naturally, as well as eating lean sources of protein, like chicken and fish. The idea isn’t to adhere to a rigid eating plan, which can be tough if you live in the United States. Instead, you should try to eat as many of these foods as possible:
- Leafy green vegetables, like lettuce mixes, spinach, collard greens, and chard
- Other vegetables, such as broccoli, asparagus, green beans, and carrots
- Peppers and tomatoes
- Whole grains (in cereals, bread, pasta, etc.)
- Berries (blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, etc.)
- Beans and legumes, like black beans, pinto beans, garbanzo beans (AKA chickpeas), and lentils
- Garlic and onions
- Nuts and seeds (almonds, cashews, sesame seeds, etc.)
- Fresh fruits (citrus, melons, apples, etc.)
- Lean proteins, such as poultry and fish
With this diet, you should limit fried food to one serving per week. Red meat should be limited to a few times per week or less. Eat no more than one tablespoon of butter per day, and use olive oil for cooking and making dressings and marinades.
Limit your servings of cheese, pastries, and sweets to a few times per week. You can have eggs and avocados several times per week. Instead of using a lot of salt, replace it with seasonings made with herbs and spices.
As long as you have no other restrictions from your healthcare provider, you can enjoy a cup or two of coffee or tea daily and one glass of wine or other alcoholic beverage each day, too.
When you fill your diet with these healthy components, you have less room for the foods you should avoid (see below). And as you feel better and have more energy, you start to crave the foods that are good for you, so the Mediterranean diet becomes a lifestyle you can embrace for years, not a trendy quick fix.
Foods to Avoid
You might be wondering what foods you should not be eating if you adopt a Mediterranean diet to reduce the risk of dementia. It helps to remember that, as well as Alzheimer’s disease, one of the main causes of dementia is vascular disease, like hardening of the arteries and high blood pressure. The same foods that cause vascular disease leading to heart attacks and stroke can influence your risk of dementia because they inflame the brain, too.
It’s not just consuming these individual foods (listed below) that makes dementia more likely. Rather, it’s eating these foods in combination and at the expense of healthier choices that can cause vascular disease that affects the brain and leads to dementia. Think of it like this: if a food is good for your heart, it’s good for your brain, too.
Therefore, eat these foods in very limited quantities, if at all:
- Processed meats, like salami and bacon
- Large quantities of red meat
- Fatty beef, pork, and poultry
- Sugary foods, such as ice cream, soda, candy, and pastries
- Highly refined foods, like those made with white flour instead of whole-grain flour
- Artificial foods, including most “diet” foods
- Foods containing trans fats, like margarine and some baked goods
- Fried food, fast food, and junk food (burgers, fries, chips, donuts, etc.)
- Large amounts of full-fat dairy (such as cheese) and butter
- Shortening, lard, and most fats that are solid when cooled
- High-sodium (salty) foods and MSG (monosodium glutamate, a common food additive)
- Excessive amounts of alcoholic beverages
Changing your diet can make a huge difference in the way you feel while it reduces your risk for many adverse health events, including dementia. If you or a loved one is already challenged by dementia, it’s not too late to switch to a non-inflammatory diet, like the Mediterranean diet, to slow down its progression. And Care Weavers Healthcare Advocates is here to help in the Charlotte area. Our Resources page is a great place to get started or feel free to reach out and let us know how we can assist you.