Fighting the Alzheimer’s Epidemic with Food
By Dr. Neal Barnard
By the time my grandmother would have gotten to the end of this article, she would have forgotten the beginning, and most likely where she was, too.
Debilitating memory loss plagued my family, just as it has so many others.
My mother’s father, a physician in a small town in Iowa, suffered from the same fate. He experienced his first heart attack at around age sixty. And not long after that, his behavior started to change.
He became confused. Sometimes he set out for walks without seeming to know where he was going. Cars had to stop as he wandered across busy streets. Once in a while, a motorist knew him and brought him back home. With time, things got worse.
I watched my grandparents and then my father struggle with the frustrations of memory loss, eventually becoming expressionless and mute. The financial costs of Alzheimer’s disease are potentially backbreaking. But the personal costs are incalculable.
Alzheimer’s disease now affects 5 million Americans—nearly half of us by the time we reach 85. And rates are expected to triple within three decades.
Associated health care costs will soar from $200 billion to more than $1 trillion by 2050, increasing the cost of Medicaid and Medicare by 500 percent.
The answer will not be found in a pill or a brain scan. The answer is on our plates. Three findings have revolutionized our understanding of this disease:
First, recent large epidemiological studies have shown that people who avoid saturated fats—the kind found in meats and dairy products—cut their risk of Alzheimer’s by two-thirds.
People who skip trans fats—the kind in doughnuts and other snack foods—cut their risk even more. It appears that these “bad fats” tend to promote the formation of beta-amyloid plaques, which are the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease.
Now, Americans have a long way to go. Currently, an average American consumes close to 200 pounds of meat and 34 pounds of cheese each year. This load of fat creates the perfect storm for an Alzheimer’s epidemic.
Most people are surprised to learn that swapping a bacon-and-cheese-filled croissant for a big bowl of oatmeal, berries, and nuts, is not only good for your heart and your waistline, but also good for your brain.
Second, certain foods can work as a shield against memory loss. Leading Alzheimer’s researchers have found that people who eat three or four vegetable servings a day reduce their risk of cognitive decline by 40 percent, compared with those who eat just one serving.
Part of the reason is the micronutrients they hold. Folate, vitamin B6, vitamin B12 all help protect the memory.
Where do you find them? Leafy greens and beans are loaded with folate and B6. B12 is most absorbable from supplements and fortified cereals. Blueberries and grapes obtain their colors from anthocyanins, powerful antioxidants shown to improve learning and recall.
Vitamin E is another brain-boosting nutrient. It slashes the risk of Alzheimer’s by as much as 70 percent. The best sources include nuts and seeds, such as almonds, hazelnuts, and pecans.
Just a small handful each day is plenty. Sweet potatoes are another source and remain the dietary staple of Okinawans, the longest-lived people on Earth.
Third, we need to be cautious about metals. Iron has been identified in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. Where did it come from? Meat, cast-iron pans, and iron supplements. Also found in diseased brains are traces of copper, which is abundant in liver and in shellfish.
Researchers with the Chicago Health and Aging Project find people who consume the highest amounts of “bad” fats and copper show a loss of mental function equivalent to an extra 19 years of aging.
It’s important to include copper, iron, and zinc in your diet, but it is also important to get them from healthful sources and to avoid excesses. Here are guidelines to avoid poisoning yourself with excess amounts:
Copper: Healthful sources include beans, green leafy vegetables, nuts, whole grains, and mushrooms.
Iron: Healthful sources include green leafy vegetables, beans, whole grains, and dried fruits. They contain non-heme iron, which is more absorbable if you need more and less absorbable when you have plenty of iron already. In contrast, meats contain a form of iron that barges into your bloodstream whether you need it or not.
Zinc: Healthful sources include oatmeal, whole-grain bread, brown rice, peanuts, beans, nuts, peas, and sesame seeds.
So, what do we do? To make it simple, think of four healthy food groups: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans, and add a source of vitamin B12, such as fortified cereals or a supplement.
And steer clear of animal products and greasy foods. And don’t forget to get regular physical and mental exercise, and proper rest.
In the same way that exercise can build muscular strength and endurance, you can do the same thing for your brain.
Physical exercises increase blood flow to your brain and have been shown to reverse age-related brain shrinkage.
Cognitive exercises can strengthen synapses—the bridges that connect one brain cell to the next.
The more solid these connections, the better off you’ll be.
Think of all you would do to protect family photos and other mementos. Now we can also take steps to preserve the originals—our actual memories and our relationships with those we love.
About Dr. Neal Barnard
Neal Barnard, M.D., is a nutrition researcher, adjunct associate professor at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, author of the new book Power Foods for the Brain: An Effective 3-Step Plan to Protect Your Mind and Strengthen Your Memory, and president of the nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.