Dementia is a leading cause of disability and death worldwide. There is no cure. Recent research has focused on whether diet might influence the risk and progress of dementia. In this Special Feature, Medical News Today assesses the evidence and looks at how you might help reduce your risk of dementia.
According to the
It may be
With an aging global population, the
The main symptoms of dementia are memory problems, loss of cognitive function and coordination, and personality changes. The most significant risk factor for dementia is aging — more than
There is currently no cure for dementia, and most treatments alleviate symptoms without slowing the progress of the disease. So are there ways reduce to reduce this risk?
Keeping fit and healthy can
“Research looking at the relationship between diet and cognition is well-established. There is strong evidence to suggest that what is good for the heart is good for the head, and we know a healthy diet is good for the heart.”
Recent research showed that a Mediterranean diet has associations with improved cognitive functioning and slowed the progression from mild cognitive impairment to dementia.
An alternative to the Mediterranean diet is the MIND diet (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay). The diet is similar but focuses on green leafy vegetables, other vegetables, nuts, berries, beans, whole grains, seafood, poultry, olive oil, and wine.
This diet highlights the importance of foods and nutrients that have an association with
A problem with diet studies is that they are observational, and people usually assess their diet through self-reported questionnaires. However, researchers have demonstrated an association between these diets and improved cognitive function.
Interestingly, the researchers found that improved cognitive function was independent of brain pathologies that post-mortems identified in participants.
Dr. Weber commented: “The Mediterranean diet and the MIND diet have been shown in clinical studies to be beneficial to brain and heart health. The Alzheimer’s Association encourages everyone to eat a healthy and balanced diet as a way to help reduce the risk of cognitive decline.”
Processed food is one of the current bad guys. Experts tell us to eat a balanced and
“There is […] strong evidence linking poor diet (for example, eating a diet high in unhealthy fats and sugar) and increased risk for dementia.”
– Dr. Christopher Weber
In animal models, a diet high in refined carbohydrates increases the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s. A
However, like all the other dietary studies, this was observational and the risks reported are relative rather than absolute. One expert commented that the results “would not persuade me to give up my breakfast bacon.”
Proponents of vitamin and mineral supplements often tout them as a way of compensating for a less than optimal diet, but is there any evidence that they might help combat dementia?
A recent study gave older male rats a processed food diet high in refined carbohydrates and found that their learning and memory skills suffered. Another group of rats on the same diet but with omega-3 supplements showed no memory problems.
The authors of the study explained their findings in terms of the inflammatory response provoked by processed foods. Scientists know that omega-3 resolves inflammation, which might explain the effect in the rats who received it.
However, there is little other evidence to suggest that supplements affect dementia. The
The link between alcohol and dementia is not entirely clear. While heavy alcohol consumption has
The majority of studies show an association between low to moderate alcohol use and reduced
However, they also noted that those who abstained from alcohol entirely had a higher dementia risk than those who drank in moderation.
Therefore, it is possible that drinking in moderation may have some protective effect, but no
One study into the effects of moderate drinking in older adults in New Zealand controlled for socioeconomic status but found no evidence for a link between moderate drinking and better health.
So perhaps that protective effect is just wishful thinking from those of us who enjoy an occasional drink!
Research has linked memory decline with inflammation, and this is an area that is attracting a lot of interest.
There are links between inflammation and the
Those with dementia had a much lower number of Bacteroides, a species known to reduce inflammation. They also had much higher numbers of microbes (enterotype III) that have associations with dementia.
Two other studies back up these findings.
“There are large numbers of studies that are pointing in the same direction. People with dementia have sub-optimal microbiomes. The picture is of not only reduced numbers of species but also increased numbers of inflammatory species.”
– Prof. Tim Spector
The gut microbiome and diet have links, and this could be why the Mediterranean and MIND diets have shown positive effects in reducing dementia risk and progression.
“Reduced [microbiome] diversity and [more] inflammatory species are related to poor diet, generally low in fiber and diversity of plants,” Prof. Spector told us. “With elderly people, there’s often a tipping point, such as losing a partner. The diet reduces in quality and diversity. That can accelerate cognitive decline.”
He did, however, stress that there may be a reverse causality. People in the early stages of cognitive decline might reduce the quality of their diet and thereby accelerate the process.
“Studies of centenarians have found that they generally live in areas with a good food culture and lots of socializing,” he added. “It’s not about fats. It’s not about carbohydrates or calories, but can you get fresh, varied food? You need your gut microbes to keep your immune system suppressing inflammation?”
The short answer is probably; that diet may well play a part. Evidence is growing that a varied diet rich in plants will support a varied gut microbiome. And a varied gut microbiome helps to reduce the inflammation implicated in dementia.
“Poor diet harms microbes, which harms the immune system with these knock-on effects of cognitive decline. In dementia, inflammatory aging is the current theory. It’s partly triggered by the immune system which involves the microbes and diet.”
– Prof. Tim Spector
So until randomized control trials can prove how diet influences dementia, it is probably best to eat a diet that reduces the risk of heart disease and supports your microbiome, combining it with regular exercise.
The jury is still out on moderate alcohol consumption, but there is clear evidence that too much alcohol increases the risk of many health conditions, including dementia.
Dr. Weber concluded: “While we continue to learn more about lifestyle factors that have the greatest impact on our overall risk, there are things we can do today that may decrease our risk of cognitive decline as we age. Eating a heart-healthy diet, exercising regularly, and staying cognitively engaged are just a few.”