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Dementia and Your Diet

Posted 6/8/2018 by UHBlog

Can you eat foods for thought? Find out if the foods you eat can reduce memory loss.

Older couple in kitchen fixing a healthy meal

Will memorable meals sharpen your memory? More to the point – can you fight dementia with your fork?

“Occasional headlines claim certain foods like coconut oil can cure or prevent dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, but none of these assertions are evidence-based,” says geriatric medicine specialist William Schwab, MD, PhD. “There is no convincingly proven method or medications to prevent – or reverse – dementia. However, some lifestyle changes can help lower a person’s risk of having memory loss, particularly when that loss is related to vascular dementia.”

Vascular dementia occurs when there isn't enough blood flowing into the blood vessels in the brain. In its early stages, vascular dementia causes cognitive difficulty that results in impaired reasoning and judgment. In its later stages, it causes memory loss.

“When the blood flow to any part of the body is compromised due to fatty deposits building up in the arteries, then the blood flow to the legs, heart, kidneys and the blood vessels in the brain is compromised,” says Dr. Schwab. “That's why if you eat a healthy, low-fat diet, your whole body will benefit.”

As far as Alzheimer’s disease and diet, Dr. Schwab says, “Given we don’t know what causes some people to develop Alzheimer’s disease, it’s hard to prevent it. However, statistics tell us the majority of people who suffer from Alzheimer’s are the elderly, the chronically ill, and people with lower levels of education.”

Dr. Schwab says a diet that may help boost brainpower is the MIND diet, which stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay. This diet contains healthy fats, fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and adequate vitamins and minerals.

Foods comprising the MIND diet include:

  • Leafy green vegetables
  • Berries and dark-skinned fruits
  • Nuts
  • Beans
  • Whole grains
  • Fish
  • Poultry
  • Olive oil
  • No more than four eggs a week

The MIND diet eliminates foods containing saturated and trans fats, which can lead to inflammation and contribute to plaque build-up in the brain. The foods to avoid are:

  • Red meat and processed meats
  • Processed cheese
  • Sweets
  • Fried or fast foods
  • White foods including pasta, cakes, white sugar, white rice and white bread

“When people follow the MIND diet they appear to have a lower frequency of dementia,” Dr. Schwab says. “However, whether people who eat a healthier diet have less dementia because they also exercise regularly, maintain a healthy weight, don't smoke and have opportunities for socialization, is a question that is up for grabs.”

Regarding diet advice for his frail elderly patients, Dr. Schwab tells them to go for the calories.

“If, at their advanced age, there is something they really enjoy eating, they should continue to do so,” he says. “And there are some people in their 90s who never experienced memory loss, didn't follow a particularly healthy diet and drank moonshine every day. These people have won the gene lottery – and for that I tell them to continue what they're doing and to thank their mothers.”

If you're concerned about your loved one's extent and type of memory loss, University Hospitals Foley ElderHealth Center provides comprehensive, multidisciplinary evaluation of seniors with physical, psychological and social problems, with a strong emphasis on cognitive function and specific ability to carry out the activities of daily living.

William Schwab, MD, PhD is a geriatrics medicine specialist and medical director of House Calls at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center. You can request an appointment with a geriatrics medicine specialist or any other doctor online.

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