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Good Nutrition and Its Impact on Alzheimer’s Disease
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 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:
- In general, dark-skinned fruits and vegetables have the highest levels of naturally occurring antioxidant levels. Such vegetables include kale, spinach, brussel sprouts, alfalfa sprouts, broccoli, beets, red bell pepper, onion, corn, and eggplant. Fruits with high antioxidant levels include prunes, raisins, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, plums, oranges, red grapes, and cherries.
- Cold-water fish (halibut, mackerel, salmon, trout and tuna) contain beneficial omega-3 fatty acids.
- Some nuts can be a useful part of the diet; almonds, pecans and walnuts are a good source of vitamin E, an antioxidant. (Alzheimer’s Association, Adopt a Brain-Healthy Diet)
While studies have not been able to definitively state exactly how much of these brain foods are required to have a noticeable effect 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:
- Distinguish food from the plate and the plate from the table by using contrasting colors for plates and placemats. This can help the food to stand out and become identifiable to someone whose perceptions are dramatically altered.
- Make sure that food and drink are at an edible or drinkable temperature to ensure the person does not burn his or her mouth. Test them before giving them to the Alzheimer’s patient.
- Make eating easy by providing finger foods that are easy to pick up.
- Avoid distraction and confusion by only serving two foods at a time.
- Let the person eat according to his or her preferences. Keep these preferences in mind and serve foods that the person has liked in the past so that the meal is more appetizing to him or her. If the person’s preferences suddenly change, change the foods and do not try to force him or her to eat foods he or she may no longer like.
- Allow the person as much time to eat as he or she needs. Because of limited abilities, he or she may take an hour or more to finish a meal.
- Allow the person as much independence as possible, even if he or she makes a mess, and adapt the plates, cups and utensils to accommodate his or her abilities. Bowls may be easier for the person to use than plates, and cups with suction cups on the bottom may aid in preventing spills
- Make the meals pleasurable by joining the person at mealtime. Engage him or her in conversation to stimulate the brain and appetite. You can also show the person how to eat as necessary through demonstration.
- If the person forgets when he or she last ate and keeps requesting a meal, break up that meal into several little meals so the person can eat each time he or she wants to without overeating. Portion out the different foods and provide them to the person over the course of the day as he or she asks for them.
For additional tips and information, and some great caregiver guides, visit the Alzheimer’s Association website at alz.org.
Alzheimer’s Association. (n.d.). Adopt a Brain-Healthy Diet.
Alzheimer’s Association. (n.d.). Alzheimer's Facts and Figures.
Alzheimer’s Association. (n.d.). Food, Eating and Alzheimer's.