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Diet to Reduce Risk of Dementia

by Martha Stettinius, Dementia Expert
June 20, 2013

Question: Is there a particular diet that a senior can follow to reduce the risk of dementia?

Answer: When I was growing up my mother taught me that margarine was better than butter because it didn’t have cholesterol (and because it was cheaper), but now the public knows about trans fat. I can’t help but wonder if that margarine and all the store-bought cookies my mother ate contributed to her dementia. (A 2011 study published by the journal Neurology showed a strong correlation between trans fat in the bloodstream and decreased brain function.)

There is no proven diet we can follow to avoid Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias, but in general what’s good for the heart is good for the brain. After thoroughly researching the connection between diet and dementia for the appendices of my book, I recommend eating food that is low-carb and anti-inflammatory.

My advice to eat low-carb, like the advice of Gary Taubes and others, goes counter to the prevailing medical recommendations since the 1980s to eat low-fat. Alzheimer’s disease (the most common type of dementia at 60-80%) has been called “type III diabetes,” and research suggests that with Alzheimer’s disease the brain becomes resistant to insulin and has difficulty utilizing glucose for energy. In 2010, researchers at Kyushu University in Japan reported that people with diabetes or pre-diabetes are more likely to develop beta amyloid brain plaques in the brain (which many researchers believe is linked to Alzheimer’s disease). Since high blood sugar increases the body’s insulin level, leading to insulin resistance in the cells of both body and brain, one way to protect your brain may be to keep your blood sugar levels low with a low-carb diet. For vascular dementia from tiny strokes (the second most common type of dementia, at up to 20%), controlling your blood sugar can reduce inflammation, a risk factor for stroke.

Some studies have shown that when people with Alzheimer’s disease metabolize fat instead of glucose for fuel (a “ketogenic” diet in which the liver produces “ketones”) their cognitive functioning improves. Although no research study has proven that coconut oil, which is rich in ketones, can help prevent, reverse, or slow dementia, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that it’s beneficial.

If you eat a low-carb, high-protein and high-fat diet, your total cholesterol level may be relatively high, but you’re likely to have more HDL, or “good” cholesterol, which research has shown may help protect brain cells. Your triglycerides are also likely to go down, which lowers your risk of stroke and heart disease, and thus dementia.

Try to eat lots of dark vegetables and fruits that are high in antioxidants; mono- or polyunsaturated fats such as olive oil (a staple of the “Mediterranean diet”); cold water fish high in Omega 3 (salmon, tuna, mackerel); and nuts such as almonds, pecans, and walnuts. A diet low in Omega 6 (found in grains and refined vegetable oils such as Canola) will help reduce inflammation and lower your risk for heart disease, stroke, vascular dementia and possibly Alzheimer’s.

Basically, imagine what your great-grandmother ate—very little processed food, refined carbohydrates, sugar, or vegetable oil. If you head in that direction, your brain will likely be healthier.
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Martha Stettinius was a “sandwich generation” caregiver for 8 years for her mother with dementia, and is the author of the book “Inside the Dementia Epidemic: A Daughter’s Memoir.” An editor with a master’s in English Education from Columbia University, she blogs for and serves as a volunteer representative for New York State for the Caregiver Action Network.

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