Dementia affects 5.8 million people in the United States alone, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, so there is a lot of research being focused on finding preventative measures and pinpointing contributing factors of this disease. According to Medical News Today, the possible factors include low levels of physical activity, smoking, alcohol misuse, insufficient or impaired cognitive reserve (the brain’s ability to compensate for neural problems), lack of social activity, unhealthy weight gain, hypertension, diabetes, dyslipidemia (unhealthy cholesterol levels), depression, hearing loss, and a poor diet.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has issued recommendations on how to address each of these factors, as well as found moderate evidence that a particular diet has been earmarked as being a steady preventative measure toward cognitive decline. The saying “you are what you eat” has been around since the 1800s, however it was only until recently that we have realised how big an impact diet has on cognitive abilities as one ages. According to the Alzheimer’s Society, a Mediterranean diet could help reduce your risk of developing dementia.
What is a Mediterranean-style diet?
A Mediterranean-style diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes and cereals, and low in red meat and sugar. Instead of regular consumption of red meat, this diet opts for oily fish. The diet also largely cuts out alcohol, sugar and saturated fats. According to research in the 1960s, men from Mediterranean regions who followed a traditional diet had much lower rates of heart attacks than those in other regions of the same age with more western diets. Researchers have continued to review these rates over the years to investigate the long term health effects of this diet and have found that there were significantly lower levels of stroke, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and slower rates of decline in memory and thinking.
How does a Mediterranean diet affect dementia risk?
The brain requires certain nutrients to stay healthy to ensure it can build and repair brain cells, reduce cellular stress and inflammation – all processes that are directly linked to brain aging. Mediterranean diets include a lot of fruits and vegetables, which have high levels of antioxidants, which may help protect against some of the damage to brain cells associated with Alzheimer’s as well as increasing the levels of proteins in the brain that protect against brain cell damage. There is also the belief that this diet can contribute to reducing inflammation. Lower levels of cholesterol, which have been linked to this diet, has in recent research shown to be associated with memory and thinking problems.
Dr. Lisa Mosconi, an associate professor of Neuroscience in Neurology at Weill Cornell Medical College, commented on the effects of a Mediterranean-style diet on the brain; “We’re seeing these changes only in parts of the brain specifically affected by Alzheimer’s, and in relatively young adults. It all points to the way we eat putting us at risk for Alzheimer’s down the line. If your diet isn’t balanced, you really need to make an effort to fix it, if not for your body, then for your brain”.
Nutrition is key to the holistic care approach
A Mediterranean diet is not difficult to follow, according to Eating Well there are 8 ways to follow this diet:
- Switch from your current oil to extra-virgin olive oil.
- Eat more fatty fish, such as salmon, sardines and mackerel.
- Introduce at least 3 servings of vegetables per day.
- Add whole grains to your diet, such as quinoa, barley, oatmeal, popcorn (air-popped), and whole-wheat products.
- Snack on nuts, including almonds, cashews or pistachios.
- Eat more fresh fruit, try a new one each week to keep it interesting.
- You may enjoy a glass of wine with a meal.
- Eat slowly, at a table with company and tune into your body’s hunger and fullness signals.
While it is important to follow a healthy, balanced diet all through your life to see the full benefits, it is also key to the ongoing treatment of a person living with dementia. The Mediterranean diet can be implemented into their meal plan, as long as special consideration is given to the nutritional requirements of older people according to their individual activity levels, their ability to safely chew and swallow solid foods, and the types of food that people using dentures can comfortably eat.
People with dementia often lack good nutrition, especially if they are not in a specialised care facility, as they tend to have difficulties with mealtimes; such as their ability to master cutlery or remembering when to eat. At Livewell Villages each meal is carefully considered and lovingly prepared with the individual residents in mind, and if a resident requests a particular dish the kitchen staff and chef will happily make it for them. Emphasis is placed on the diet, ensuring it is nutritious, rich in variety, colour, textures, and familiar to the resident.
Whether you are looking to make some changes in your own diet, as a preventative measure, or that of your loved one living with dementia to aid in their treatment, we encourage you to use these tips or reach out to us for more information so we can help bring you closer to your goal of a healthy diet and healthy life.