Health & Nutrition with Rosie Shelley
SOME 25,000 Irish people are living with Alzheimer’s disease (AD), and around the same amount with dementia, with figures growing due to our increasingly ageing population. September marks World Alzheimer’s Month, and this year the Alzheimer Society of Ireland is joining forces with worldwide charities to highlight the fact that someone is diagnosed with dementia every three seconds.
AD is characterised by the formation of amyloid ‘tangles’ and ‘plaques’ in the shrinking brain. These clumps destroy brain cells and interfere with its chemical messaging functions, particularly of acetylcholine, which deals especially with memory. Age is of course the primary risk factor, but others are equally important— diabetes, cardiovascular issues, genetics, infections, stress and nutritional deficiencies. An overview of more than 300 studies found that the number one protective factor was a healthy diet.
Tumeric and Folic Acid
One consideration is that cognitive health is directly linked to heart health, and that both are strongly determined by blood levels of a toxic compound called homocysteine. Reducing those levels, by taking high strength B vitamins, would therefore be the first plan of action. Research has shown between 30% and 90% less brain shrinkage in people with early signs of AD when given B6, B12 and folic acid, which boost the conversion of homocysteine into that vital acetylcholine in the same way as the drugs given to people with AD do. Another very promising supplement/food is turmeric, proven to boost brain function and mood by 28% in older adults with memory problems.
Inflammation (partly as a result of poor gut bacterial balance) is a central feature, as is oxidative damage to the cells, so taking a good probiotic and eating plenty of antioxidants in brightly coloured plant foods is the second prong of attack, along with exercising regularly (in the sunshine for important vitamin D). Inactivity raises the risk of AD by 82%, while in May researchers following 191 women over four decades showed that those who were fit were a similarly huge 88% less likely to develop dementia.
Cut right back on inflammatory sugars, white grains, sweeteners and processed foods (increased risk of 88%), stick to omega-3 richer grass fed meat and dairy (never processed meats), and avoid trans/hydrogenated fats altogether—neuroscientist Dr Lisa Mosconi says that you only need 2g a day to cause cognitive decline. And be sure to visit your dentist regularly—a strong connection has been established between gum disease and amyloid clumping.
In June, a US study showed that those eating the most leafy greens were the equivalent of an astonishing eleven years younger, cognitively speaking. AD risk is far lower in people who eat more plant foods in general. Dr Michael Greger, author of the bestselling How Not to Die, has devised a list of the best foods, to be eaten daily, for the prevention of dementia: pulses (beans, peas, chickpeas, lentils), berries, cruciferous veg (broccoli, kale, cabbage etc), any variety of other veg, linseeds, nuts and seeds, herbs and spices, wholegrains, and water/tea/coffee. Dr Mosconi adds to that list oily fish, for the omega-3 fats that make neurons and protect brain cells, citrus, live plain yoghurt, avocadoes and dark chocolate.
A diet high in healthy fats reduces risk by 44%, and the Mediterranean diet, based on colourful vegetables and fruit, greens, oily fish, beans and lentils, nuts and seeds and olive oil, is widely accepted by as the very best model for the prevention and control of AD. Olive oil contains compounds that can halt the build up of those plaques.
Research has pointed to high levels of copper in the blood of AD sufferers, and we know that copper makes it harder for the brain to get rid of amyloid proteins. It is, however, in a great variety of (healthy) foods, so the answer is to take a supplement of zinc, which is antagonistic: the higher your zinc levels, the lower those of copper.
Canadian scientists found that chronic exposure to anxiety and stress hormones—also inflammatory – damage and shrink the relevant parts of the brain. Do anything you can to control stress levels, including of course exercise, and getting a good night’s sleep. UK scientists recently suggested that both exercise and sleep stimulate the glymphatic system in the brain that ‘cleans’ out the toxic build up of amyloid proteins. Expert Professor Chris Fox says that ‘if these toxins are not cleared, this can lead to inflammation [and] inflammation in the brain releases neurochemicals which can damage it.’ And many scientists point to the importance of sleep in forming and maintaining memories. Neuroscientist Professor Matthew Walker concludes ‘getting too little sleep across the adult life span will significantly raise your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease’.
• B vitamins: brown rice, millet, broccoli, leafy greens, potatoes, bananas, pulses, nuts and seeds, oily fish, liver, poultry, eggs, dairy, seaweeds
• Folic Acid: leafy greens, root veg, wholegrains, beans and lentils, almonds
• Beta-carotene: orange/yellow fruits and veg, broccoli and leafy greens, liver, eggs, full fat dairy, seaweeds
• Vitamin C: berries, tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, apples, citrus
• Vitamin D: sunshine, oily fish
• Vitamin E: nuts and seeds, avocado, brown rice, sardines, cold pressed virgin olive oil
• Antioxidants: all fruit and veg, nuts, pulses, green tea, tea, coffee and dark chocolate
• Omega 3: oily fish, linseeds, walnuts
• Choline (precursor to acetylcholine): eggs, sardines, liver, pulses, oranges
• Magnesium: wholegrains, pulses, nuts and seeds, leafy greens, fish, seaweeds
For more information, go to alzheimer.ie or call 1800 341341. One of their initiatives this year is the launch of an Alzheimer Society of Ireland cookbook.