Cut your risk by 53% – or more
You can reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s by 53%, according to new research from Harvard University. And by adding just three more common nutrients to their dietary recommendations – you can cut the risk even further.
You’ve probably read that ageing is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s – but that’s not strictly accurate.
What is true, is that you normally accumulate damage to DNA, cells and organs as you age. It is this damage that results in Alzheimer’s – not the passing of the years.
So, the good news is that if you reduce, slow or prevent cell and tissue damage, major new research shows you can more than halve the risk of dementia.
The even better news is that, if you take the preventative action outlined below, you also cut your risk of heart disease and stroke – probably by as much as 80%.
This article was written by Colin Rose, a Senior Associate Member of the Royal Society of Medicine, who has been writing on science for 40 years.
Alzheimer’s facts and figures
A leading cause of death
Dementia is now the Number 1 cause of death in women and the Number 2 in men – according to the UK’s Office of National Statistics in 2017.
That’s because the brain ultimately controls everything – the heart, gastro-intestinal organs, metabolism, etc. Dementia, therefore, becomes a terminal illness, leading to overall frailty, susceptibility to infections, eating problems, pneumonia and breathing difficulties. And is highly distressing to the individual and family.
70% of people with dementia have Alzheimer’s
About 70% of people with dementia have Alzheimer’s Disease, which involves a gradual decline in cognitive function. Vascular Dementia is caused by restricted blood flow, and therefore oxygen and nutrients, to the brain. It is often linked to high blood pressure, high cholesterol or follows a stroke or heart disease.
Most Alzheimer’s sufferers are over 65
Most people with Alzheimer’s Disease are 65 and older. After the age of 65, when the risk is about 2%-3%, the risk of Alzheimer’s DOUBLES every five years.
After age 85, the risk reaches almost 30% of all adults.
But if you are reading this, and are in your 50s or early 60s, you should note that Alzheimer’s is a stealthy threat. It begins at least 10 years before the symptoms become apparent in everyday behaviour.
So the time to take action is well before 65.
The genetic links are weak, except for those of Afro-Caribbean heritage
The risk of Alzheimer’s is doubled in people of Afro-Caribbean heritage – a genetic link.
Other genetic links are weak, so that someone of other heritage with a parent or grandparent who developed Alzheimer’s is at only slightly higher risk. But, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, “it is estimated that less than 1 percent of Alzheimer’s cases are caused by deterministic genes – genes that cause a disease, rather than increase the risk of developing a disease)”.
Strong links with heart disease and stroke
There is a strong link between heart disease, stroke, ED (Erectile Dysfunction) and Alzheimer’s Disease. Because a healthy brain and a healthy heart both need unrestricted blood flow through arteries and blood vessels.
High blood pressure increases risk
For this reason, hypertension or high blood pressure increases the risk of Alzheimer’s
Brain ‘plaques’ and ‘tangles’
Alzheimer’s brains are characterised by ‘plaques’ and ‘tangles’. Plaques consist of dead brain cells and a protein called beta amyloid which is toxic. Tangles are made up of another protein called tau, which becomes abnormal and clumps together leading to neuron cell death and inhibited neural communication.
Noticeable change can take 10 years to show
These changes in the brain may take up to 10 years to become noticeable in behaviour.
Average survival from onset of symptoms is 8.4 years
The average survival time from the onset of symptoms is 8.4 years.
Diabetes increases risk
Diabetes increases the risk – but the development of diabetes can be slowed or prevented with the exact same programme as we discuss below.
Stress, obesity, smoking and alcohol increase risk
Chronic – long-term – stress increases the risk, as do obesity, smoking and high alcohol consumption.
Gum disease may be linked
There also may be a link between a bacterium that causes the gum disease gingivitis and Alzheimer’s.
No drugs yet that prevent or slow Alzheimer’s
There are no drugs yet that prevent or slow Alzheimer’s.
MIND Diet lowers Alzheimer’s risk by 53%
The MIND Diet was developed by Rush University and the Harvard School of Public Health in 2015. It stands for the Mediterranean/Dash Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay – and combines the best of what were previously the world’s two most studied diets.
These were the well-known Mediterranean Diet and the DASH Diet – the latter stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, developed at Harvard University.
The MIND Diet emphasises ‘brain foods’ that improve focus and memory – foods like berries (blueberries, raspberries, strawberries etc), lots of vegetables, green tea, Omega 3 rich oily fish (salmon, sardines, mackerel etc), whole grains, nuts and olive oil.
Why these foods? Because oily fish (and some nuts and seeds like walnuts and flaxseeds) provide Omega 3 which is important for brain health and normal neuron connections. Berry fruits and leafy greens are high in flavonoids and polyphenols which are brain protective.
A study published in the Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association found that adults following a MIND diet had a 53% lower risk of developing dementia than those eating a typical Western diet.
They went further – those eating the most MIND diet servings (in the top third of nutritional intake) were assessed as 7.5 years younger in biological age. Not just healthier brains, but younger brains!
But what is it in the MIND Diet that produces these results? Flavonoids and polyphenols
Flavonoids and polyphenols are a class of nutrients found in fruits and vegetables that are arguably as important for health as vitamins and minerals.
Flavonoids include the colourants in the skins of plants – powerful nutrients like the carotenoids, beta carotene, lycopene and lutein. Carotenoids help prevent the formation of the beta amyloid plaques and tangles that degrade neuron brain cells and characterise an Alzheimer’s brain. [They are also important anti-cancer nutrients.]
But flavonoids have another property. They have both an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effect.
The brain is a fatty organ – and researchers have shown that oxidation or free radical damage to fats sheathing neurons in the brain is a contributory cause of dementia. Anti-oxidants counteract this oxidation and help prevent and slow that damage.
Inflammation in the brain is another contributory cause. So anti-inflammatory nutrients like flavonoids can help prevent inflammation damage.
The effect is not just to keep the brain healthy – the high antioxidant levels in the MIND diet help reduce free radical damage to DNA, tissues and cells throughout the body, which otherwise can lead to cancer.
Furthermore, the MIND diet is also a natural immune system booster. It’s high in vitamins and minerals like vitamin A, C and D, zinc, in flavonoids, carotenoids and in Omega 3 – all of which strongly support the immune system.
Finally, the MIND diet improves blood sugar levels and therefore helps protect against diabetes, which in turn lowers the risk of dementia.
Omega 3 is vital for brain health
Sometime between 195,000 and 125,000 years ago, humans nearly went extinct. An ice age set in and much of the earth was ice covered and uninhabitable. The population of our hominid ancestors may have crashed to as little as a few thousand – and most anthropologists agree that everyone alive today is descended from this small group.
The archaeological evidence is that this group almost certainly survived by extending their hunting and gathering to the coastal areas of Africa.
There they were able to harvest shellfish and cold-water fish which are rich in Omega 3 fatty acids. These fats, it is believed, helped drive the evolution of our highly complex brains – which are over 60% poly-unsaturated fat in composition.
Within Omega 3 is a compound called DHA. DHA is possibly the single most important nutrient for brain health. It facilitates the communication between brain cells and is critical to the growth and survival of healthy brain cells. It also helps reduce inflammation in the brain and in other body tissues.
In study after study, diets rich in Omega 3 are found to be protective of brain health. These include the Mediterranean diet, the Japanese Okinawan diet and certain Scandinavian diets.
Keep body and brain active to reduce risk too
The hippocampus is a part of the brain that is critical to memory. Normally it shrinks by 1 to 2 percent a year as you get older, leading to potential cognitive impairment, a prelude to dementia. But research shows that that just 40 minutes of brisk walking, three times per week, leads to significant brain growth.
In one study, adults who participated in aerobic exercise – the level where you breathe harder – saw an over 2% INcrease in the size of their hippocampus over one year, in contrast to a 1.4% decline in control subjects.
That’s because exercise raises levels of a brain chemical called BDNF that encourages the growth of new brain cells.
A University of California study shows that people who are regularly physically active have far fewer of the plaques and tangles that are characteristic of Alzheimer’s.
Finally, avoid sitting too long without a break. Taking a short break every hour and stretching for even a minute or two can make a significant difference to long-term brain and general health.
To physical activity add some mental effort, whether crosswords, sudoku, or learning something new like a musical instrument or language. Use it or lose it!
If your activities are done with others so much the better, because research shows loneliness can impair cognitive health.
Brush your teeth
Recent research, reported in 2019 in Science Advances and posted on the UK National Health Service site, has linked gum disease to Alzheimer’s.
The researchers have noted that bacteria called P. gingivalis, which cause gingivitis, are significantly more common in people with Alzheimer’s than in people without – almost doubly more common. And the harmful proteins produced by P. gingivalis are present in higher concentrations in the brains of Alzheimer’s sufferers.
When mice were infected by the bacterium, they began to show increased tau protein and tangles, which are characteristic of the mental deterioration of people with early stage dementia.
The research has even triggered false internet claims that “you can catch Alzheimer’s”!
But a closer reading of the research shows that this is a small a scale study, involving lab tests on brain tissue and on mice. These types of study are both useful and necessary as early studies, but not necessarily conclusive. And a link between gum disease and Alzheimer’s doesn’t necessarily mean it causes Alzheimer’s. Correlation is not causation!
What is true, however, is that inflammation in the brain is definitely present in Alzheimer’s patients and gingivitis is an inflammatory disease – all diseases ending in ‘-itis’ are.
At this stage, the safe conclusion is to reduce pro-inflammatory foods in your diet and increase your intake of anti-inflammatory foods and supplements.
Improving on the MIND Diet
Recent research shows that curcumin (the active ingredient in turmeric) may help prevent the accumulation of plaques that build up in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients – and which interfere with communication between brain cells. Indeed, curcumin activates hundreds of genes that are anti-inflammatory and neuro (brain) protective.
There is also recent evidence, published in 2019 in the European Journal of Pharmacology, that a nutrient called betaine could have an important preventative role to play.
The researchers state: “betaine is the first potential medicine that can act preventively, instead of just easing the symptoms”.
It’s important to qualify that this very recent study was on mice and needs to be confirmed in humans – but the report does state that betaine “significantly improves memory and oxidative stress in mice, which indicates that a new AD (Alzheimer’s Disease) medicine might have been found”.
Since we know that betaine also lowers heart disease risk, it is certainly worth including betaine rich foods in your diet (like seafood and wheatgerm) and betaine should be included in a health supplement that aims for brain health.
Add MULTI-STRAIN PROBIOTICS
Probiotics – ‘good’ bacteria – might improve brain function in existing Alzheimer’s patients. A 2016 study published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience reported on 60 Alzheimer’s patients who drank milk that included four probiotic bacteria species for 12 weeks.
The strains were Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus casei, Bifidobacterium bifidum, and Lactobacillus fermentum.
There was a ‘statistically significant’ improvement of cognitive function compared with those who drank regular milk.
Although researchers do not yet know exactly how gut bacteria influence behaviour or brain function, one theory is that a leaky gut may allow compounds to pass into the blood stream that harm the brain.
By reducing the permeability of the intestinal walls, certain probiotics like Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium may help prevent this leakage.
It might, therefore, be worth considering a multi-strain probiotic as part of an overall programme to cut the risk of Alzheimer’s.
A Best of the Best Eating Plan
At the end of this article is an eating plan that improves even on the MIND Diet, in that it includes curcumin, betaine and other specifically neuro-protective foods and nutrients.
BUT if you’re trying to get all the nutrients you need by eating only regular food, you may find it difficult. For instance, the number of daily portions of fruits and vegetables in the MIND studies is considerably higher than a simple 5-a-day recommendation.
Indeed, both the American Cancer Society and University College London in a recent huge study conclude that the ideal intake is 9-10 portions of fruits and vegetables a day – plus 2-3 portions of oily fish a week.
At these levels your intake of vitamins, minerals and flavonoids ensures that your blood chemistry becomes seriously protective against age-related illness generally, and dementia in particular.
For most people 70 portions of fruit and veg a week is not achievable. Consequently, I believe that people over the age of 50 – who do not generally absorb nutrients as well as younger people – should take a supplement.
That supplement should include flavonoids, which are as important to health as vitamins and minerals. It should also include curcumin, betaine, Omega 3, and the nutrients that promote positive gene expression – like lutein, lycopene, beta carotene, extra B vitamins and vitamin D.
A simple one-a day multivitamin just isn’t enough.
Modified MIND Diet plus NutriShield health supplement
The one-page summary of the ideal, enhanced MIND diet therefore includes a health supplement called NutriShield Premium, which supplies all these extra nutrients. It was originally designed by Dr Paul Clayton, former Chair of the Forum on Food and Health at the Royal Society of Medicine. And – full disclosure – it is a supplement we created in response to the research on healthy ageing and brain health.
Unlike most supplements, NutriShield doesn’t just contain the basic RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance) amounts of vitamins and minerals, which only prevent outright deficiencies. Instead, it’s designed to provide you daily with the wide range and high level of nutrients found in the very healthiest diets.
You can download the plan free here.
This article was written by Colin Rose, a Senior Associate Member of the Royal Society of Medicine, who has been writing on science for 40 years.
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See online here for delicious recipes from the Health Defence Cookbook incorporating healthy foods featuring in a Mediterranean Diet.
MIND diet associated with reduced incidence of Alzheimer’s disease; Morris MC et al, Alzheimers Dement. 2015 Sep;11(9):1007-14.
Involvement of GAT2/BGT-1 in the preventive effects of betaine on cognitive impairment and brain oxidative stress in amyloid β peptide-injected mice. Ibi, D, Tsuchihashi A, Nomura T & Hiramatsu M. (2019). European Journal of Pharmacology, 842, 57-63.
Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory. Sayal N (2015) Annals of Neurosciences, 22(2). doi:10.5214/ans.0972.7531.22
Declining NAD(+) induces a pseudohypoxic state disrupting nuclear-mitochondrial communication during aging. Gomes AP et al, Cell. 2013 Dec 19;155(7):1624-38. doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2013.11.037.
Betaine in human nutrition; Stuart AS Craig The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 80, Issue 3, November 2004, Pages 539–549
Nutrition and the Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease; Nan Hu et al; Biomed Res Int. 2013: 524820.
Porphyromonas gingivalis in Alzheimer’s Disease brains: Evidence for disease causation and treatment with small-molecule inhibitors; Stephen S. Dominy et al; Science Advances, 23 Jan 2019: Vol. 5, no. 1, eaau3333