Could What You Eat Really Prevent Alzheimer’s?
According to an article in Prevention Magazine’s May edition, new research suggests it is possible! There’s some really innovative studies going on at the Wake Forest School of Medicine , where Suzanne Craft (professor of gerontology and geriatric medicine) has been at it for 20 years. Her case studies are having some astounding results with how the brain is affected by what we eat. So, could what you eat really prevent Alzheimer’s ? Let’s see if we can find out by taking a look at what Professor Craft has been up to.
What is Alzheimer’s
First, let’s understand what Alzheimer’s is…Alzheimer’s, or senile dementia, is a progressive mental deterioration that can occur in middle or old age, due to generalized degeneration of the brain. The first symptoms usually show up in a person during their mid-60’s. It is the most common cause of premature senility.
The word dementia describes a set of symptoms that can include memory loss and difficulties with thinking, problem-solving or language. These symptoms occur when the brain is damaged by certain diseases, like Alzheimer’s disease.
The the damage to the brain starts maybe a decade before the onset of any symptoms. Even though a person may seem symptom free, toxic changes are taking place within the hippocampus (where memories are formed) of the brain. Abnormal deposits of proteins form amyloid plaques (Amyloid or protein plaques are sticky buildup which accumulates outside nerve cells, or neurons) and tau tangles (another form of protein, known as primary markers for Alzheimer’s) throughout the brain, and once-healthy neurons stop functioning, lose connections with other neurons, and die.
As more neurons die, additional parts of the brain are affected. By the final stage of Alzheimer’s, damage is widespread, and brain tissue has shrunk significantly.
Who Is Likely To Develop Alzheimer’s Disease?
The National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Aging estimates that Alzheimer’s is the 6th leading cause of death in the United States. Even though it usually runs in families, less than 5% of Alzheimer’s cases are directly caused by genetic variation. There’s usually no way to tell who will get it.
However, people who have type 2 diabetes are at least twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s as those who don’t. With nearly 30 million Americans having type 2 diabetes, and with 40% of people born today expected to develop it in their lifetime, it’s worth exploring the correlation it has with Alzheimer’s.
What does Type 2 Diabetes Do To The Brain?
Professor Craft believes that much of the connection between Alzheimer’s disease and type 2 diabetes has to do with insulin. Insulin removes sugar or glucose from your blood and moves it to your cells, where it’s used for energy.
But sometimes the body doesn’t use insulin efficiently, causing the body to pump out more glucose. When this happens for long periods of time, it can cause chronic high blood sugar, or type 2 diabetes.
Everyone knows the havoc type 2 diabetes wreaks on the body, but Craft and other researchers are more interested in what it does to the brain. They are exploring the role of insulin and blood sugar levels on memory in people who don’t have diabetes. The number 1 factor that affects your blood sugar levels and how much insulin you need, is the intake of carbohydrates in the diet.
Craft’s Controlled Diet Studies & How What We Eat Affects The Brain
~ Craft took 49 older adults, 29 whom had early signs of Alzheimer’s disease and 20 whom did not, and randomly assigned them to one of two diets for 30 days. The first, high in saturated fat and easily digested carbohydrates, was meant to mimic the stereotypical American diet. The second was more Mediterranean, with less saturated fat and a focus on complex carbs that take longer to be absorbed and therefore don’t cause the same spike in insulin as the simple carbs do.
By the end of the month, the people who had been assigned to the Western-style diet performed worse on memory tests than they had at the beginning of the trial. And, Alzheimer’s markers showed up in their spinal fluid.
Those who’d been assigned the Mediterranean style diet did better on the tests and their spinal fluid contained few Alzheimer’s related protein markers.
The effects reversed once participants returned to their normal eating habits at the end of the study.
~ In another study, Craft found that people’s cognitive abilities temporarily decreased, and that beta-amyloid markers increased, following just a single high carb meal!
~ 20 years ago when Craft first began her research on Alzheimer’s, neurologists were focusing on glucose; they knew that people with Alzheimer’s didn’t use glucose properly. Craft designed a small trial that tested whether giving people a boost of glucose via a sugary beverage would temporarily improve their performance on a cognitive test.
The results were positive, but not because of the glucose boost, but to elevations in insulin that happen naturally when people are given glucose. Scientists still don’t understand why, exactly, but they do know that insulin is essential to the hippocampus. Without adequate insulin, the hippocampus can’t access the energy it needs to record memories efficiently. Insulin also acts as a neurotransmitter, enabling brain cells to communicate with each other. It modulates the levels of other brain chemicals that interact with memory. It also reduces inflammation, directs blood flow, and helps repair and create brain cells.
The MIND Diet
Craft’s studies are ongoing, and she doesn’t yet know how powerful the effects of dietary patterns on Alzheimer’s risk may be, but she says there is no question that diet can affect our minds.
Craft’s findings offer a possible rationale for why a diet high in processed carbs and type 2 diabetes increases the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. They provide a reasonable explanation for why several recent observational studies have found an association between a low carb, Mediterranean inspired eating pattern called the MIND diet and a lower risk of Alzheimer’s .
Most importantly, Craft’s remarkable findings suggest that each of us can take steps to reduce our risk of developing Alzheimer’s by altering our eating habits to the MIND diet.
Could what you eat really prevent Alzheimer’s? According to Craft, absolutely! Everything you put in your mouth has an impact on your brain. Craft says, “eating poorly and depriving your brain is absolutely going to affect how it functions over time”. Her advice: Eat a Mediterranean style diet featuring lots of produce and fatty fish. Avoid refined grains and processed foods. Exercise. That simple!
Do you or someone you know and love have early onset Alzheimer’s disease? Or, does it run in your family? What are you doing to prevent it? Tell us what you think or have experienced with this illness. Leave remarks in the space below.