A heart-healthy diet may protect the brain

A heart-healthy diet may protect the brain

As reported in the newspaper of the American Medical Association, a healthy diet may turn out to be a strong defense against Alzheimer’s. A four-year study of 815 Chicago seniors published in the Archives of Neurology found that a diet high in artery-clogging saturated fat doubled the risk of the disease. (A diet high in trans fats was also linked to a strong increased risk.) At the same time, a diet high in unsaturated vegetable fats — such as those found in vegetable oils — lowered the risk.

In fact, the eating pattern known as the Mediterranean diet — which is rich in fish, fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains and healthy fats such as olive oil — has been found to reduce Alzheimer’s risk by 40 to 60 percent, according to a recent Johns Hopkins report.

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Fish, a rich source of healthy omega-3 fatty acids, may turn out to be particularly effective for lowering the risk of developing Alzheimer’s. The study of Chicago seniors and Alzheimer’s compared their consumption of tuna and other seafood meals. Researchers found that those who ate one serving or more of fish each week had a 60 percent lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s than those who seldom or never ate fish. (Fried fish, however, doesn’t seem to confer the same benefits).

Your own kitchen may supply other sources of food Rx. Some studies suggest that plant chemicals, such as quercetin in apples (mostly the peels), red onions, beta-carotene (found in carrots, sweet potatoes, and many other vegetables), and polyphenols (found in red wine), may protect against dementia.

Curcumin — the plant from which tumeric is made — has strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, and it has been found in mouse studies to reduce the accumulation in the brain of the protein beta amyloid plaques, a hallmark of Alzheimer’s. Research involving curcumin and Alzheimer’s patients is ongoing, but no data is yet available. In the meantime, a good curry, an apple salad and some salmon steaks certainly won’t hurt.

The high blood pressure connection

In some people, having high blood pressure may also set the stage for memory loss. According to a study from the National Institute on Aging, people in their mid-50s and older with high blood pressure scored lower on memory tests than people with normal pressure. Other studies, however, have found no association between high blood pressure and cognitive decline.

The possible connection between Alzheimer’s and vascular disease, however, intrigues researchers. According to the Progress Report on Alzheimer’s Disease, issued by the Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Referral Center, “Cerebrovascular disease is the second most common cause of dementia and there is some evidence that brain infarctions (strokes) and AD may possibly be linked.

Although major strokes have obvious consequences, small ones may go undetected clinically.” According to the report, another lifestyle factor that may turn out to influence Alzheimer’s is blood cholesterol levels. Among other things, it says, scientists have found that high blood cholesterol levels may increase the rate of plaque deposition in laboratory mice.

“It’s definitely a good idea to keep blood pressure under control if you already have memory problems, because poorly controlled hypertension can lead to multi-infarct dementia and therefore worsening memory,” says Dr. Michael Potter, an associate professor and attending physician at the University of California at San Francisco Medical Center. “This may be especially important in people who already have poor memory due to Alzheimer’s.”