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The Science Behind Diet and Dementia

Sarah Stevenson
By Sarah StevensonFebruary 1, 2013

Can a healthy diet prevent dementia or slow age-related memory loss? Research shows that some nutrients play a key role in reducing dementia risk and slowing early-stage Alzheimer’s disease. Learn more.

The Science Behind Diet and DementiaOmega-3s, vitamin D, zinc — these nutrients and others have been linked to the prevention of dementia and Alzheimer’s. But how do vitamins and minerals actually work to reduce the risks and even the symptoms — of dementia? It’s a lot more complex than simply taking a few supplements here and there. Read on to find out what scientists are discovering about these powerhouse nutrients, and the best ways to consume them so that your loved ones derive the most benefit.

Can You Reverse Dementia Symptoms By Changing Your Diet?

In some cases, changing what you eat can reduce dementia symptoms and improve mental clarity. Heather Schwartz, RD and geriatric nutrition expert for A Place for Mom, says,

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“I’ve seen this occur in persons with documented anemias (either from iron, B12 or folate) who were given supplements… I’ve been told many times that once they avoided the food(s) that caused them to react, that their mental abilities skyrocketed.”

Schwartz continues, “The other case where I’ve seen this happen is when patients on medications for Alzheimer’s or other dementia related issues start taking their medications correctly. That is, previously they were taking them sporadically, or with food when the medication’s directions were to take it without food, etc. Once they stabilized their medication routine, they began to notice the positive effects of the medications.”

Getting enough water is also important. Not only can dehydration directly lead to confusion, fatigue, and other problems, it can also affect the absorption of necessary vitamins and minerals. “I’ve had patients who, after re-hydrating themselves and eating a more balanced diet, became significantly more bright, awake and alert,” says Schwartz. “I’ve had many patients say to me, ‘it’s like someone turned on the lights!’ I associate this with adequate hydration and increasing the availability of vitamins and minerals to the brain.”

Nutrients Linked to Dementia Prevention

Researchers studying Alzheimer’s are finding out more and more about basic nutrients that can help reduce the risk of dementia, or even slow the progress of the disease. There’s definitely a link between a healthy diet and a healthy brain. High intake of carbohydrates and sugar has been associated with a higher risk of mild cognitive impairment, according to a recent Mayo Clinic study. Seniors should make sure to consume enough protein, especially healthy lean protein like poultry and fish. Some of the most promising compounds they’ve studied over the past few years include:

1. Vitamin D

A 2012 study in Current Alzheimer Research indicated that low vitamin D is associated with Alzheimer’s. Another study from late 2012, conducted in France, confirmed that a higher intake of vitamin D is associated with a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

2. Vitamin C 

In a 2011 study in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, vitamin C treatments successfully dissolved amyloid plaques in the brains of mice — the same type of protein plaques that affect people with Alzheimer’s.

3. Vitamin B12

In 2011, the journal Neurology reported that low vitamin B12 is a risk factor for cognitive impairment. An earlier study in 2010, also reported in Neurology, found that higher concentrations of B12 in the body were associated with a lower risk of Alzheimer’s.

4. Vitamin E: The Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease reported in 2010 that higher plasma levels of vitamin E in older adults correlated with a reduced Alzheimer’s risk.

5. Omega-3s

A 2012 study in Neurology showed that people whose diets contained more omega-3 fatty acids had lower levels of Alzheimer-associated beta-amyloid in their blood.

6. Zinc

A 2012 study in Biofactors showed that not only were patients with AD relatively deficient in zinc, treatment with zinc provided cognitive benefits in animal models.

Other nutrients such as vitamin B1, Folic Acid, phosphatidylserine and antioxidants like CoQ10 have also shown some promise in treating cognitive decline, as well as some herbs like Gingko Biloba and panax ginseng.

Schwartz cautions, “Though the research is still not clear on exact amounts of these to take (outside of the RDI for each of these), and most of the research I am familiar with does not differentiate the amounts from food vs supplements-a major slip-up when trying to translate their findings to the public domain.”

The Risks of Taking Vitamin Supplements

Many vitamins can be toxic at high levels. Fat soluble vitamins such as A, D, E and K are often more harmful than water soluble ones (vitamin C, and B) as they are stored in adipose tissue and can build up over time, causing toxicity. Though, water soluble vitamins can also cause ill effects when taken in excess.

Schwartz says she’s seen many well-intentioned patients harm themselves in their quest to improve their health. “I have had several patients come to see me for digestive issues like abdominal cramping and diarrhea and when I reviewed their diets, medications and supplements, it was discovered that they were taking high doses of Vitamin C. I have had patients with cognitive impairment that accidentally over dosed on Vitamin C or other vitamins and minerals as they had forgotten they had already taken them, only for their caregivers to discover they had finished a whole bottle of the supplements in a few days’ time.”

It is also important to note that the liver and kidney are the organs that metabolize most vitamins and minerals, so when you ingest large volumes of these, you are asking these organs to work harder than usual. Taxing these organs over long periods of time can be detrimental, especially in those with preexisting kidney or liver issues. Occupying the kidney or liver without metabolizing these supplements can deter them from doing other important tasks, like metabolizing important medications, according to Schwartz.

The Bottom Line: A Well-Balanced Diet Pays Off

“Vitamins should optimally come from food,” says Schwartz. “The only time I recommend vitamin supplements is when a person’s diet is limited, such as in the case of food allergies, intolerances, medication side effects, dislikes, etc.” Vitamins are absorbed better when they come from food. Conversely, some vitamins are toxic at high levels, meaning you should check with a doctor before adding supplements to your loved one’s diet.

“If you eat fast food several times a week, this is likely causing more damage in the body and/or brain than daily supplements of phosphatidylserine could ever possibly address. Optimizing and balancing the thousands of chemicals you eat every day has a much more significant effect on the body and brain than does a supplement with a single nutrient that you take once a day or so,” Schwartz says.

Review our list of Best Memory-Boosting Foods for Seniors for tips on what foods pack the most nutritional punch.

Do you or a loved one follow a special diet for cognitive health? Share your stories with us about your diet in the comments below.

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Sarah Stevenson
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