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Do Diet and Gut Health Reduce the Risks of Alzheimer’s Disease?

a photo of an elderly man set on a background photo of different kinds of food amid the ongoing talks concerning the risks of Alzheimer's disease

Every 65 seconds, one American develops Alzheimer’s disease. Right now, about 5.7 million people in the U.S. have the debilitating brain disorder. Estimated care costs for patients racked up to $277 billion in 2018. And this amount can quadruple to over $1 trillion by 2050. Moreover, it’s the sixth leading cause of death in the country. These staggering figures are pushing medical and nutritional experts to find ways to reduce risks of Alzheimer’s—even to the point of determining if there are specific foods that cause Alzheimer’s disease and is their an overall tie to gut health. The search for a cure continues.

Meanwhile, studies are emphasizing the significant role that diet plays in either inducing or preventing the disease. What you’re eating right now might just raise your chances of losing your memory. On the flip side, some foods can boost brain health and decrease risks of Alzheimer’s.

Alzheimer’s and Dementia

Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive and irreversible brain disease or disorder. It gradually wipes out memory and thinking skills. The disease occurs when the brain’s nerve cells stop functioning. They lose links or connections with other brain cells and die. At present, how the process starts is still unclear. Genes play a role but are generally not the direct cause, except in rare cases. What’s clear is that the brains of people with Alzheimer’s develop amyloid plaques. These are abnormal protein deposits. The plaques form between neurons and neurofibrillary tangles.

Dementia and Alzheimer’s are often used interchangeably. And in fact, many people have been searching for the key to how to avoid dementia. However, dementia refers to a global malfunction of the brain. It’s a set of symptoms that hinder intellectual and social abilities. Such hindrance impacts the day-to-day activities and life of a person with the condition. The most prevalent or common cause of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease.

Foods that Cause Alzheimer’s disease

For years, the misconception that Alzheimer’s is a normal part of aging prevailed. As such, there was also less attention given to figuring out how to avoid dementia. The impression is understandable, as the majority of those inflicted are aged 65 and older.

However, as numerous studies have proven, the disease involves several other risk factors.

One such factor is nutrition, or the lack thereof and the direct link to improper gut balance. Findings related to foods that cause Alzheimer’s disease generally point to substances causing the stimulation of toxins in the body. The toxins induce inflammation and the buildup of plaques in the brain. As a result, the brain’s cognitive function becomes impaired.

a photo of different kinds of food amid the ongoing talks concerning the risks of Alzheimer's disease and foods that cause Alzheimer's disease, as well as the discussion on how to avoid dementia
Based on studies, most processed foods that we consume contain high amounts of trans fat. Will refraining from eating them the key to how to avoid dementia?

One study shows that trans fat consumption of as little as 2 grams per day can raise risks of Alzheimer’s. Most processed foods that we consume contain high amounts of trans fat. Another study claims that too much red meat can speed up degeneration. That’s because they’re rich in iron, which can build up in the gray matter area. Also, processed meats can contain nitrosamines. Such compounds cause the liver to produce fats that are toxic to the brain. Likewise, foods rich in refined carbohydrates and sugars increase risks of Alzheimer’s disease, according to a 2012 study. Processed cheese products are among foods that cause Alzheimer’s disease as well. They contain proteins that slowly build up in the body, which have been linked to the disease.

“The message here is that inflammation is directly determined by the health and diversity of our gut bacteria, and this has major implications in terms of brain health, function, and disease resistance,” according to Dr. David Perlmutter.

The MIND Diet

Experts from Rush University Medical Center in Chicago have found that a particular eating plan can reduce risks of Alzheimer’s by 53 percent. The study featured the Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) diet. As the name indicates, it combines DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) and Mediterranean diets—but with modifications that focus on brain health.

“The Mediterranean and DASH diets have been shown to be protective against coronary artery disease and stroke, but it seems the nutrients emphasized in the MIND diet may be better suited to overall brain health and preserving cognition,” Study Co-Author Laurel J. Cherian, M.D., M.S, said, “The goal is to emphasize foods that will not only lower our risk of heart attacks and stroke, but make our brains as resilient as possible to cognitive decline.”

The MIND diet has 14 dietary components. The ‘brain-healthy’ food group that reduce risks of Alzheimer’s includes poultry, fish, nuts, beans, whole grains and green leafy vegetables. The diet limits foods that cause Alzheimer’s disease such as red meat, butter, margarine, cheese, pastries, sweets, and fried or fast foods.

Another research compared participants’ diet to their performance on cognitive tests. Those who ate foods that align with the MIND diet scored higher. Research Co-Author Claire T. McEvoy, Ph.D., a clinical dietitian, and nutritional epidemiologist, wrote in the paper, “These findings lend support to the hypothesis that diet modification may be an important public health strategy to protect against neurodegeneration during aging.”

Yet another study in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience showed a direct positive link through the use of Probiotics containing Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus casei, Bifidobacterium bifidum, and Lactobacillus fermentum. Those in the study who used the probiotics experienced a significant decline in inflammation attributed to the health and diversity of gut bacteria.

Leveraging Nutrition to Cut Down Risks of Alzheimer’s

The market for products that can meet specific nutritional requirements for disease treatment is huge. Estimates suggest that it’s worth around $15 billion. Nestlé is one of the major corporations currently conducting extensive research on medical foods. The food and beverage giant has also turned its attention on reducing risks of Alzheimer’s. In line with this, Nestlé has helped fund clinical trials of a biotech company formerly named Accera. Now known as Cerecin, the company develops medical food for patients with mild or moderate Alzheimer’s disease. Determining how to avoid dementia and Alzheimer’s through nutrition is part of Cerecin’s mission.

Another notable company that focuses on the link between food and brain science is NeuroTrition Inc. Instead of zeroing in on risks of Alzheimer’s, the company addresses mental health as a whole. As such, NeuroTrition develops meal plans based on combined insights from neuroscience and nutrition. The company’s proprietary plans include Brain Food Menus and Brain Building Programs. Menus are customizable. This case means customers with risks of Alzheimer’s can incorporate the MIND diet. The 8-year-old company also educates people on the importance of nutrition for brain health through the NeuroTrition Conference. Meal plans such as those offered by NeuroTrition make it easier for more people to avoid foods that cause Alzheimer’s disease.

Prevention is Key While There’s No Cure

Presently, there are not enough tests that provide answers on how to avoid dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.  According to Martha Clare Morris, Sc.D., creator of the MIND diet, “While we know that there is a strong link between diet and health, intervention trials to examine whether a change in diet will help prevent Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias have been largely neglected.” Clearly, more research and innovations are a must.

More businesses in the food industry can contribute in decreasing risks of Alzheimer’s disease. They can develop solutions that improve food quality. They can remove brain-damaging ingredients in their products as well.

As Francine Grodstein, Sc.D., professor of medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital at Harvard Medical School puts it, “There’s no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, and even the approved treatments are not all that effective, so this really points to the importance of prevention,” she said at a conference. “If we can make some changes at the earliest stages [of Alzheimer’s], we don’t need to worry about treatments or cures.”


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