How You Can Avoid the Alzheimer’s Epidemic
November 18, 2016
By Kristin Oriogun, MPH, Nutrition Educator
Imagine not being able to remember your life’s accomplishments, recognize your loved ones, or complete even the simplest of tasks. Imagine relying on a caretaker or family member to help you fulfill your most basic needs. Unfortunately, this is the likely fate for the 5.4 million American’s currently believed to have Alzheimer’s disease.¹ The data even show that by the time we reach the age of 85, we have a 50 percent chance of getting this terrible disease! Don’t feel discouraged by these statistics. There are several steps you can take to prevent Alzheimer’s.
Alzheimer’s runs in my family, doesn’t that mean I’m doomed to get it too?
By now, most of us know that poor diet can lead to obesity, heart disease, and diabetes, but we consider brain disease to be something that we have no control over. Alzheimer’s happens to us simply as a result of the genetics we were born with—right? Not necessarily. While there are certainly genetic factors that increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s, for many people, Alzheimer’s disease is really no different from heart disease and diabetes. All of these diseases are closely related to nutrition and lifestyle choices, and all can be prevented. Isn’t this good news—that you can help to prevent Alzheimer’s disease by making better food choices?
Stop and think about the food choices that many Americans are making on a daily basis. Could the bagel, muffin, and glass of juice that many people start their morning with be damaging their brain? What about the soda, chips, and candy bars commonly purchased at convenience stores, or the French fries and chicken nuggets fed to children on a daily basis—could these foods actually increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease? The answer is an astounding YES! What many people don’t realize, but research clearly shows, is that a diet high in processed carbohydrates, trans fats, and sugars, and low in healthy fats, negatively impacts the health of our bodies and our brains.
How do my food choices affect the health of my brain?
Similar to diseases like heart disease and diabetes, chronic inflammation is thought to be a major risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. We all recognize inflammation as the burning sensation, swelling, and redness that occurs after we bump our knee, get a cut or an insect bite. This type of inflammation is beneficial and helps to heal the body. However, when we eat a diet high in processed carbohydrates, sugar, and trans fats, day in and day out, our bodies become chronically inflamed. Inflammation in the blood vessels and arteries of the brain deprives the brain of vital oxygen and nutrients needed for normal cognitive function (thinking and memory). Simply put, chronic inflammation is bad news for your brain.
Besides inflammation, research is now showing that Alzheimer’s disease is likely related to insulin resistance in the brain.² Similar to the way that people with Type 2 diabetes stop producing and responding to insulin, the brain cells of people with Alzheimer’s disease appear to be deprived of glucose because their insulin receptors are partially blocked. In fact, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease have so much in common that many doctors and scientists now refer to Alzheimer’s disease as Type 3 diabetes.
How Insulin Resistance Affects the Brain
Insulin is the key that allows glucose (blood sugar) to enter cells to be used for energy. When cells in the brain no longer respond to insulin, they become insulin resistant and can no longer produce the energy they need to survive. Death of too many brain cells leads to neurological problems, from mild memory problems to more serious forms of dementia. Insulin resistance in the brain is also thought to contribute to the brain plaques and tangles that are the hallmark signs of Alzheimer’s disease. While we still don’t know exactly what causes insulin resistance in the brain, dietary factors like excessive alcohol intake, nitrates in many processed foods, and toxins in the environment are thought to contribute to the problem.³
What steps can I take to keep my brain healthy?
1. Keep your blood sugar balanced.
This is critical for brain health. Did you know that having Type 2 diabetes doubles your risk for Alzheimer’s disease?4 That is pretty scary news considering that 25.8 million Americans have diabetes and another 75 million—an astounding 35 percent of the population—are pre-diabetic.5 But guess what? You don’t need to have full-blown diabetes or even pre-diabetes to be at risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Just having consistently high blood sugar from eating a diet high in bread, pasta, soda, candy, cookies, and other “man-made” carbohydrates, damages your organs—including your brain. On the other hand, keeping your blood sugar balanced by eating a combination of quality animal protein, healthy fats and primarily vegetable-based carbohydrates at each meal and snack can help you prevent diabetes of the body and diabetes of the brain.
2. Eat enough healthy fat!
The human brain is more than 70 percent fat. Your brain loves healthy fats from foods like olive oil, nuts, seeds, avocados, salmon, butter, eggs and quality meats. These foods contain nutrients that are imperative to brain health. As an example, the nutrient choline found in egg yolks is critical for memory. For years we have been told to avoid animal products because they contain cholesterol, but we now know that cholesterol serves many important functions in the brain. In fact, the well-respected Framingham heart study found that people with higher cholesterol actually have better cognitive function!6 The FDA has now added “memory loss, cognitive impairment, and confusion” to the list of side effects for statin medications that are used to lower cholesterol.
For extra protection for your brain, consider adding the following healthy fats to your diet:
- Coconut Oil may be especially important if you (or someone you know) are already suffering with memory issues or early signs of Alzheimer’s disease. In her book, Alzheimer’s Disease: What if there Was a Cure?³ Mary T. Newport, a neonatologist, tells the story of how she used coconut oil to significantly improve symptoms and the quality of life for her husband Steve, who was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Coconut oil contains a high concentration of a special type of fat called medium-chain fatty acids. When ingested, medium-chain fatty acids are converted into ketones by the liver and then sent to the brain to be used for fuel. Unlike glucose, ketones do not require insulin to enter the cell, so they are an important fuel for people who have insulin resistance in the brain—like those with Alzheimer’s disease. In short, ketones from coconut oil protect the brain by providing much-needed energy for brain cells.
- DHA just might be considered the super-fat for Alzheimer’s prevention and optimum brain health. DHA is an omega-3 fatty acid that makes up 60 percent of the fat in your brain. It is found in high levels in fatty fish like salmon and tuna. This perhaps explains why consuming more than two servings of fish per week is associated with a 59 percent reduced risk for Alzheimer’s disease.7 DHA is an important building block for brain cell membranes, it reduces brain inflammation, and it may even help to produce new brain cells. Studies show that people who supplement their diet with DHA show outstanding improvements in learning and memory and reduce their risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease.8 If you haven’t already, consider increasing your intake of fatty fish or adding a DHA supplement to your daily routine. At Nutritional Weight & Wellness, we recommend supplementing with 600 mg of DHA from an algae source to support good memory and brain function.
Coconut Oil in Action
To help alleviate symptoms in her husband Steve, who has already been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, Dr. Newport provides Steve with three tablespoons of combination coconut/MCT oil at each meal and two tablespoons at bedtime (a total of 11 tablespoons daily). She also feeds him a variety of foods with coconuts, including coconut milk, shredded coconut, etc. throughout the day. She has substituted coconut oil for most of the other added fats and carbohydrates in Steve’s diet.
To use as an effective treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, Mary T. Newport recommends the following:
- Buy organic, non-hydrogenated, unrefined coconut oil
- Gradually increase your intake of coconut oil. Taking too much too soon can result in indigestion and/or diarrhea. Start with 1 teaspoon of coconut oil at each meal, and gradually increase intake to four to six tablespoons per day, spread out over two to four meals.
To learn more, read Dr. Newport’s book, Alzheimer’s Disease: What if there Was a Cure.
3. Beyond these nutritional strategies there are several additional steps you can take to improve the health of your brain.
Intestinal health, sleep, and exercise are important factors to consider when putting together your Alzheimer’s prevention plan. If you are beginning to notice your memory is not as sharp as it used to be, it may be time to make an appointment with a nutritionist who can help you get your brain back to optimal functioning. Taking the proper steps not only helps to prevent Alzheimer’s disease, but also protects your brain from depression, anxiety, chronic headaches, and other memory issues.
Unfortunately, as of today there is no known cure for Alzheimer’s disease. We must focus on prevention. Remember, by the time we reach the age of 85, we have a 50 percent chance of getting this terrible disease. Ask yourself: Do I want to be part of the 50 percent of people who get Alzheimer’s disease, or the other 50 percent who are able to fully enjoy some of the best years of life? The message is clear; change your nutrition to change your brain.
For more information on Alzheimer’s listen to our November 23 podcast: Alzheimer's—A Family Affair with special guest Dr. Newport, author of Alzheimer’s Disease: What if there Was a Cure.
- Alzheimer's Association, Thies W, Bleiler L. 2011 alzheimer's disease facts and figures. Alzheimers Dement. 2011;7(2):208-244. Accessed 11/9/2013 12:57:48 PM. doi: 10.1016/j.jalz.2011.02.004; 10.1016/j.jalz.2011.02.004.
- Craft S. Insulin resistance syndrome and alzheimer's disease: Age-and obesity-related effects on memory, amyloid, and inflammation. Neurobiol Aging. 2005;26(1):65-69.
- Newport MT. Alzheimer's disease: What if there was a cure? 2nd ed. Laguna Beach, CA: Basic Health Publicatins, Inc.; 2011.
- Ohara T, Doi Y, Ninomiya T, et al. Glucose tolerance status and risk of dementia in the community the hisayama study. Neurology. 2011;77(12):1126-1134.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National diabetes fact sheet: National estimates and general information on diabetes and prediabetes in the united states. . 2011.
- Elias PK, Elias MF, D’Agostino RB, Sullivan LM, Wolf PA. Serum cholesterol and cognitive performance in the framingham heart study. Psychosom Med. 2005;67(1):24-30.
- Schaefer EJ, Bongard V, Beiser AS, et al. Plasma phosphatidylcholine docosahexaenoic acid content and risk of dementia and alzheimer disease: The framingham heart study. Arch Neurol. 2006;63(11):1545. Accessed 11/10/2013 6:46:08 PM.
- Yurko-Mauro K, McCarthy D, Rom D, et al. Beneficial effects of docosahexaenoic acid on cognition in age-related cognitive decline. Alzheimer's & Dementia. 2010;6(6):456-464. Accessed 11/10/2013 6:55:18 PM.