Diet and dementia

vegetables

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that a healthy lifestyle supports healthy ageing, and an important aspect of this is food and nutrition.

The brain requires a lot of oxygen, which in turn means that the heart and blood vessels need to be in good working order to deliver it. Hence the idea that what is good for the heart is good for the head.

The Alzheimer’s Association refers to a ‘Brain-Healthy diet’ as one that reduces the risk of heart disease and diabetes, and keeps cholesterol and blood pressure in check.

A Mediterranean diet is often touted as the best, but what evidence backs this up? A 2013 review of existing research articles (Lourida et al.) found that following a Mediterranean diet is associated with slower cognitive decline and a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. The authors suggest the need for further long-term studies to establish whether strictly following such a diet can delay and/or prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

A number of reasons are given in this review as to why a Mediterranean diet might be beneficial, including: a reduced risk of heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and metabolic syndrome; protection from oxidative damage in the brain because of the antioxidants in this diet (found in fruit and vegetables, wine and extra virgin olive oil); and lower levels of inflammation. Research into individual components of the diet has highlighted the importance of omega-3 fatty acids (from oily fish) and the neuroprotective properties of monounsaturated fats.

In such research, a Mediterranean diet is characterised as one that is high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and low saturated fat, meat and sugar. Fish, dairy products, olive oil and wine are consumed in moderation. As the authors note, the study designs cannot prove a causal relationship between a Mediterranean diet and a lower risk of dementia, but they do show a correlation between the two.

A good diet for general health and wellbeing is equally important for people with dementia. The Alzheimer’s Society factsheet on eating and drinking has useful information about why people may have difficulties with eating and drinking (poor appetite, difficulty seeing or recognising food, problems with motor co-ordination, pain or difficulty in swallowing etc.), and what can be done to overcome some common problems.

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Image: “Hortalizas del huerto urbano” by the Centro de Jardinería Tot en U, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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