Written by Linda Sims
Linda Sims is a qualified Nutritional Therapist. She holds a diploma in Nutritional Therapy from The College of Naturopathic Medicine, for whom she now lectures on nutrition. She practices in Bristol and Pill.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia in the UK. According to the UK Alzheimer’s Society there are more than 850,000 people currently living with this disease. One in every 14 of over 65s are diagnosed with this progressive disease, which gradually results in more parts of the brain being damaged.
The symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease can start slowly, such as simply finding it hard to remember names or where you put your keys (whilst this happens to all of us, those with an early dementia will experience these symptoms more frequently). Remembering your past experiences but being unable to recall very recent ones is also a common sign. As the disease progresses more severe symptoms appear such as poor reasoning or judgement (such as forgetting to look out for traffic when crossing the road), the loss of language skills and personality changes. Alzheimer’s disease has a profound impact not only on the sufferer but also on those around them.
Who is at risk?
Age – Being over 65 puts you at an increased risk, whilst UK’s number of AD sufferers over 65 is at 7.1%. In the USA this number is higher at 13% and expected to rise to 20% (that’s 1 in 5) b 2030! (1)
Genetics – those who carry the APOE4 gene are at an increased risk of developing this disease
Excess weight in the under 65 and being underweight in the over 65 are factors correlated with an increased risk of AD. (32)
Having Type 2 diabetes is also considered a risk factor. (3)
Alzheimer’s disease is characterised with plagues and tangles in the brain; these are the suspected culprits in disrupting the communication between nerve cells leading to their damage and eventually their death. When scientists have opened these plagues, they have discovered traces of metals, especially copper, iron and zinc (4). We all need these metals in our diet, in excess it seems they can deposit in out brain and if oxidised they can create free radicals, which likely initiate the nerve damage.
Reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s Disease
“Our best weapon against this debilitating condition is prevention.”
While we have yet to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, our best weapon against this debilitating condition is prevention. Starting early is a key as first damage to nerve cell starts years before any symptoms may present. Lifestyle choices such as smoking cessation, and staying active both mentally and physically can help to reduce the overall risk. Practicing meditation for example has been shown to help reduce neuro-degeneration and thus may have a role in preventing AD. (6)
Diet is one of the most powerful tools we can use to modify our risk of AD. The MIND diet, developed at the Rush University in Chicago, has been shown in studies to lower the risk of Alzheimer’s by up to 53% when followed rigorously. Those who followed the diet moderately reduced their risk of AD by 35%. The MIND diet is based on 15 healthy dietary components, namely green leafy vegetables, other vegetables, berries, beans, whole grains, fish, poultry, olive oil and wine. Those following the MIND diet are expected to limit their consumption of red meat, butter or margarine, cheese, pastries and sweets and lastly fried or fast food. It has also been consistently voted one of the easiest diets to follow. (7)
“Diet is one of the most powerful tools we can use to modify our risk of AD.”
The MIND diet is not dissimilar from the diets of the Blue Zones, places around the world where people live to a very ripe old age without suffering from the chronic conditions we see in Western countries such as cancer or Alzheimer’s disease. The people living within the Blue Zones base their diets largely on plant foods (up to 95%), a daily portion of beans, and when animal protein is eaten, it tends to be fish (about 3x per week). Meat and dairy are occasional treats. The vegetarians and vegans of the Loma Linda Seventh Adventist community had even better health outcomes than those within the same community who include animal products in their diet. (8)
There is no doubt that eating an overall healthy diet is the key, there are some special nutrients that have been shown to support the health of the nervous system. A recent study has shown that medicinal mushrooms have neurotrophic properties, which means they might help to stimulate the growth of nervous tissue. (9) Including mushrooms such as reishi, shitake or lion’s mane in our diet can therefore help to keep our nervous system healthy. There are many medicinal mushroom supplements on the market; these may be the easiest way to get these powerful fungi into our body, especially as it is not very common to find mushrooms such as lions mane in a supermarket.
“Including mushrooms such as Reishi, Shiitake or Lion’s Mane in our diet can […] help to keep our nervous system healthy.”
Berries are one of the main cornerstones of the MIND diet. Blueberries in particular have been shown to improve memory, slow down the neuronal ageing and reduce cognitive decline. (10) Eating a portion of blueberries every day as a part of a healthy diet may be a simple yet beneficial tool for reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. I like to add blueberries into my smoothies or my morning porridge.
“Blueberries in particular have been shown to improve memory, slow down the neuronal aging and reduce cognitive decline.”
The incidence of Alzheimer’s disease is particularly low in rural India. This could be partially due to the daily use of turmeric, in particular its component curcumin. This potent compound has been shown to reduce beta-amyloid and plaque and is also known for its potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, enhancing its protective benefits for our nervous system. (11,12) I like adding some fresh turmeric root into my smoothies or juices and adding the spice into curries, soups, stews or grains.
“Turmeric […] is also known for its potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.”
Whilst there may not be a sure guarantee, making considerable diet and lifestyle changes can help prevent many modern chronic diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease. Ensuring your diet contains lots of anti-inflammatory spices, vegetables, berries, adequate protein and good fats is a simple step towards healthy ageing.
1. National Institute on Aging, accessed 18/04/2017
2. Pedditizi, Peters, Becket, The risk of overweight/obesity in mid-life and late life for the development of dementia:a systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal studies
Age and Ageing 2016; 45: 14–2, Oxford University Press
3. Peila, Rodrigues, Launer, Type 2 Diabetes, APOE Gene, and the Risk for Dementia and Related Pathologies; Diabetes 2002 Apr; 51(4): 1256-1262
4. Lovell, Robertson, Teesdale, Campbell, Markesbery; Copper, Iron and zinc in Alzheimer’s disease senile plagues, J Neurol Sci 1998; 158:47-52
5. Khalsa DS, Stress, Meditation, and Alzheimer’s Disease Prevention: Where the Evidence Stands; J Alzheimers Dis. 2015;48(1):1-12. doi: 10.3233/JAD-142766.
7. Morris MC1, Tangney CC2, Wang Y3, Sacks FM4, Bennett DA5, Aggarwal NT; MIND diet associated with reduced incidence of Alzheimer’s disease; Alzheimers Dement. 2015 Sep;11(9):1007-14. doi: 10.1016/j.jalz.2014.11.009. Epub 2015 Feb 11
8. Orlich MJ1, Singh PN, Sabaté J, Jaceldo-Siegl K, Fan J, Knutsen S, Beeson WL, Fraser GE; Vegetarian dietary patterns and mortality in Adventist Health Study 2; JAMA Intern Med. 2013 Jul 8;173(13):1230-8. doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.6473
10. Krikorian R1, Shidler MD, Nash TA, Kalt W, Vinqvist-Tymchuk MR, Shukitt-Hale B, Joseph JA; Blueberry supplementation improves memory in older adults; J Agric Food Chem. 2010 Apr 14;58(7):3996-4000. doi: 10.1021/jf9029332.