Dodging dementia through diet

 
What we eat can affect our mental health and help prevent Alzheimer’s disease.

Viva!Health’s Veronika Powell looks at the evidence

Food can affect our mood and the way we feel but we’re aware only of the immediate effects. Yet it goes deeper than that and can influence our nervous system in the long term, having been linked to dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and other conditions.

A vegan diet that’s naturally high in antioxidants, fibre and low in saturated fats lowers the risk of cognitive decline and some neurodegenerative diseases. Eskelinen et al. found that people whose mid-life diets were characterised as healthy – high in plant foods and low in saturated fats etc – had a lower risk of dementia compared with people who ate unhealthy diets. The difference was staggering – people who ate the healthiest had an 86-90 per cent decreased risk of dementia and a 90-92 per cent decreased risk of Alzheimer’s disease compared with people whose diet was the least healthy.

Another long-term study followed participants for 20-30 years and revealed that people with higher cholesterol levels in mid-life had a significantly higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia (1.5 times higher) later in life.

Research shows that apart from genetic and age-related factors, the risk of Alzheimer’s disease is increased by elevated levels of cholesterol and other fats (blood lipids), blood pressure and diabetes.

At the International Conference on Nutrition and the Brain in Washington (US) in 2013, experts were asked to draw up and comment on guidelines for the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease, using sound evidence. They agreed the following.

  1. Minimise your intake of saturated fats (found primarily in dairy products, meats and coconut and palm oils) and trans fats (hydrogenated fats found in many processed foods).
  2. Vegetables, pulses (beans, peas and lentils), fruits and wholegrains should replace meats and dairy products as staples of the diet.
  3. Vitamin E should come from foods rather than supplements (seeds, nuts, green leafy vegetables and wholegrains).
  4. Reliable sources of vitamin B12 should be part of your daily diet (fortified foods or a supplement). Importantly, age and other factors may impair absorption.
  5. If using multiple vitamins, choose those without iron and copper, taking iron supplements only when directed by a physician to avoid a dangerously high iron intake.
  6. Although aluminium’s role in Alzheimer’s disease remains unclear, those who want to minimise their exposure should avoid aluminium cookware, antacids, baking powder or other products containing aluminium.
  7. Include aerobic exercise in your routine, equivalent to 40 minutes of brisk walking, three times a week.

For a boost to your nervous system eat berries, which have been shown to have a protective effect due to their high flavonoid content (natural compounds found only in plants). In one study, nearly 130,000 participants were followed for over 20 years and scientists found that those who consumed the most berries had a significantly lower risk of developing Parkinson’s disease. Another long-term study followed over 16,000 people and found that a high intake of flavonoids, especially from berries, slowed down cognitive decline.

Although we don’t know the precise mechanisms of how the nervous system is affected by diet, we do know that a vegan diet can be protective and reduce the risk of neurodegenerative diseases.

To find out more and learn what else can a vegan diet do for you, see Viva!Health’s The Incredible Vegan Health Report: www.vivahealth.org.uk/veganhealth/report or order a hard copy at www.vivashop.org.uk/healthreport, or by calling Viva! on 0117 944 1000, 9am-5pm