Published: Apr 4, 2014
Many seniors are faced with a growing number of health problems as they age. One particularly concerning disease is Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s is a progressive, incurable, fatal disease that usually strikes the elderly but can occur in people as young as age 40. This disease is the most common subclass of dementia, which is a term used for any number of diseases that affect memory and intellectual ability to the point of interfering with a person’s everyday activities. Alzheimer’s disease in particular causes memory loss and affects the thinking and behavior of those who suffer from it.
Currently, Alzheimer’s disease affects more than 5 million Americans, a number that is expected to rise to 7.1 million by 2025. There are a number of risk factors for this disease that the general public is aware of, including head injuries, genetics and a family history. However, one risk factor that does not seem to get as much media attention is the possible link between Alzheimer’s disease and vascular disease.
The human brain is fed nutrients and oxygen by the vascular system. If the vascular system is not functioning well, the brain is also deprived of essential nutrients and oxygen, which can cause disease in the brain, including dementia. Research shows that the same risk factors for vascular disease–diabetes, hypertension, and high cholesterol–are also risk factors for Alzheimer’s.
Reducing Your Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease
While a person may not have any control over genetics or family history, he or she can take action that may reduce the risk of acquiring Alzheimer’s disease, including following a brain-healthy diet. The Alzheimer’s Association defines a brain-healthy diet as “one that reduces the risk of heart disease and diabetes, encourages good blood flow to the brain, and is low in fat and cholesterol.” They recommend increasing the intake of foods that can protect brain cells, and list the following recommendations on their website:
While studies have not been able to definitively state exactly how much of these brain foods are required to have a noticeable affect on a person’s risk of acquiring Alzheimer’s disease, there are some data that show that older women who eat primarily leafy green and cruciferous vegetables demonstrate mental functioning that is two years younger than their counterparts who do not eat many of these vegetables. Therefore, incorporating as many of these brain-healthy foods into the diet as possible is recommended.
Following a brain-healthy diet, along with being socially and physically active, limiting the intake of alcohol and maintaining a healthy weight, could very well mean the difference between acquiring Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia or aging gracefully.
Nutrition and the Alzheimer’s Patient
It is also vitally important that seniors who already have Alzheimer’s disease practice healthy nutritional habits to help them stay healthy and independent as long as possible. Foods high in cholesterol, saturated fat, sodium, and refined sugar should be greatly limited or eliminated. They should also eat a good variety of foods to ensure an adequate nutritional balance.
An additional problem that needs to be accounted for, however, is that Alzheimer’s patients may be faced with additional challenges that interfere with maintaining a healthy diet. As the disease progresses the person may have difficulty with dexterity and may not be able to handle cutlery and utensils easily; the person may not recognize foods or may forget when he or she last ate. Other obstacles to eating well include mouth pain due to poor-fitting dentures or other mouth problems the person is not able to communicate; lack of exercise, which reduces the appetite; a reduced sense of taste and smell; medications that interfere with the appetite; changes in perception that make it difficult for the person to distinguish food from a plate; and distractions that keep the person from eating.
To overcome these obstacles, caretakers can apply a number of approaches to ensure their loved one or client gets the nutrition he or she needs. The Alzheimer’s Association provides a number of excellent tips and strategies on their website for caretakers to use including the following:
For additional tips and information, and some great caregiver guides, visit the Alzheimer’s Association website atwww.alz.org.
Alzheimer’s Association. (n.d.). Adopt a Brain-Healthy Diet. Retrieved from alz.org/we_can_help_adopt_a_brain_healthy_diet.asp
Alzheimer’s Association. (n.d.). Alzheimer's Facts and Figures. Retrieved from alz.org/alzheimers_disease_facts_and_figures.asp
Alzheimer’s Association. (n.d.). Food, Eating and Alzheimer's. Retrieved from alz.org/care/alzheimers-food-eating.asp