Diet cannot undo Alzheimer’s, but the right diet may help brain health and slow memory loss, says Richard S. Isaacson, MD, Director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at New York-Presbyterian/ Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City and co-author of The Alzheimer’s Diet. (AD Education Consultants, 2012).
A 2014 study at the University of Florence in Italy notes that nutrients in plant foods such as green tea, olive oil, red wine, spices, berries, and herbs are associated with reducing diseases such as Alzheimer’s that are related to the clumping of proteins called amyloids.
And some research suggests that a low carbohydrate diet may improve memory function, as well as insulin resistance (a precursor to diabetes, when blood sugar has difficulty entering the cells), says Isaacson.
“What we’re finding in the studies is that not one dietary approach fits all,” says Isaacson. “You have to do multiple things at once.”
Several studies suggest that a Mediterranean diet high in vegetables, whole grains, and fish may be helpful, says Isaacson.
“Switching to that diet when someone already has memory loss may have positive effects in terms of memory function or biomarkers that indicate more optimal brain health.”
And cocoa rich in antioxidants may boost brain health as well. In a 2012 eight-week study at the University of L’Aquila in Italy involving 90 elderly people with some memory loss, those who daily consumed the highest dose of cocoa powder containing the highest amount of antioxidants had improved memory and lower insulin resistance compared to those who drank cocoa with fewer antioxidants. They also did better on tests assessing brain function and verbal skills.
- Cut sugar and processed foods. Sugary and processed foods produce glucose, or blood sugar, which creates a by-product that may cause damage to brain neurons, says Christopher N. Ochner, PhD, Faculty at Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, N.Y., and Co-author, The Alzheimer’s Diet (AD Education Consultants, Inc., 2012). Fewer carbs mean that the brain is more likely to burn ketones, compounds that cause less cell damage. “A low-carbohydrate state may be more protective of the brain,” says Ochner.
In a 2012 study at the University of Cincinnati, 23 adults with some memory loss followed either a high-carb or low-carb diet. Those who ate fewer carbohydrates had higher ketone levels and better memory function after six weeks.
Ochner suggests offering someone with Alzheimer’s more good carbs like green leafy vegetables with fiber and avoiding white refined foods like white rice and baked goods. But do not put your loved one on a low-carb diet without consulting her doctor and/or a nutritionist.
- Go Mediterranean. Both Ochner and Issacson suggest that caregivers offer a Mediterranean-style diet that includes fruit (especially antioxidant-rich berries), vegetables, and fatty fish like salmon, turkey, and dark cocoa. They also recommend that the proportions of nutrients be 30 to 40 percent carbohydrates, 25 percent fat (only 7 percent saturated) and 25 to 35 percent lean protein.
- Stimulate a flagging appetite. Your loved one may lose interest in food as Alzheimer’s progresses. “If the person is losing weight, give her anything she’ll eat,” says Ochner. Add meal supplements like Boost or Ensure, making sure they are cold, shaken, and in a flavor your loved one likes, says Isaacson. “See a registered dietician to find out what kinds of high-calorie foods or supplements to use.” He also suggests seeing a speech pathologist to ensure that your loved one is swallowing normally.
- Offer plenty of fluids. If your care recipient has trouble staying hydrated, do not offer coffee, anything with caffeine, or sugary drinks. Instead, offer sports drinks or vitamin water.
- Simplify the table. “Let your loved one sit in the same seat at the same time each day, using the same plates and utensils, says Isaacson. “Do anything to make eating streamlined and uncomplicated.”