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To this day, Alzheimer’s is still one of the most prevalent and complex cognitive diseases worldwide. It currently affects 6.7 million Americans, most of whom are over the age of 65. However, age is just one factor that influences this condition. Another impactful factor is nutrition, which can largely affect a person’s overall well-being and either increase or minimize the associated risks of Alzheimer’s.
With nutrition itself being nuanced, carers of Alzheimer’s patients need to understand how it impacts the condition deeply. If you’re interested in learning more, continue reading below.
How does nutrition affect Alzheimer’s?
Alzheimer’s disease is currently the country's sixth leading cause of death. Most of the risk comes from patients in the late stages of the condition, whose impaired brain function makes it difficult to perform relatively basic actions such as sitting up, taking care of hygiene, and eating. Since there is no cure for the disease just yet, experts suggest that the best way to combat it is through prevention and slowing down its progression. One way this can be done is through nutrition.
Food plays a huge role in cognitive function. The brain uses about 20% of the energy gained from the food a person consumes. This means that throughout that day, thinking takes up around 320 calories per person. Furthermore, certain foods can also influence internal processes and behavior. Take coffee, for example. Caffeine has the power to improve mood and sharpen focus for a short period of time. In a similar way, specific food items can influence the progression of Alzheimer’s positively or negatively. For example, the MIND (Mediterranean–DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) diet states that foods like berries and leafy greens help combat oxidative stress and inflammation associated with Alzheimer's.
Conversely, while there are no strict dietary guidelines for Alzheimer’s, some food categories can still negatively affect how the brain works. Diets that are high in carbohydrates and sugar may lead to inflammation and a build-up of plaques in the brain, increasing the risk or speeding up the development of the disease. Thus, healthcare providers still recommend a well-balanced nutrition plan for patients who have Alzheimer’s.
Ways the nutrition of Alzheimer’s patients can be improved
For patients who are undernourished
One of the changes that occur with Alzheimer’s is shifts in eating habits, which sometimes leads to malnutrition. This can be caused by difficulty with swallowing, a dislike for a particular food, or, in severe cases, loss of the senses. When this happens, caregivers need to guide patients throughout their meals. If they’re having trouble eating, gently touching their throat can signal them to swallow. It’s also essential to consult their family on which foods they’re fond of, as it can increase their appetite. If it’s becoming apparent that they’re losing taste and smell senses, it’s crucial to identify which foods still seem tasty to them and prepare more of those. While some of these foods may not be the most nutritionally packed, knowing that they spark a natural interest in eating will help to make food more interesting, at the least.
For patients that are obese
On the other side of the spectrum, obesity can also exacerbate the effects of Alzheimer’s. It’s associated with increased brain atrophy and impairment. Therefore, it’s highly beneficial to overcome obesity to potentially slow down the progression of Alzheimer’s. Since obesity is another complicated disease, some experts suggest using medical interventions. This includes medication, such as GLP-1, for weight loss. This works by activating receptors in the brain to curb appetite and lessen cravings. If a person is eligible for this treatment, they can lose up to an average of 15% of body weight and reduce the effects of obesity on the brain. On top of this, some clinical trials suggest that GLP-1 agonists may even be helpful in treating Alzheimer's itself.
For patients in the early stages
A study found that most Americans follow the Western pattern diet, which is a risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s. It involves consuming pre-packaged food, processed meats, and high-sugar beverages. As mentioned earlier, these foods induce systemic inflammation, which impairs the blood-brain barrier. It’s best to switch to other diets as early as possible to prevent this. Nutritional experts recommend the Mediterranean diet or a ketogenic diet, apart from the slightly more complex MIND diet discussed above. Ketones are an alternative energy source for the brain that can decrease inflammation and restore energy metabolism, slowing down the progression of Alzheimer’s.
Ensure the best care for Alzheimer’s patients by following the nutritional tips above. Do listen to one of our podcasts for more insights on this condition.
Article written by Rosette June