(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)
As people age, their brains become more prone to inflammation and oxidation. People with Alzheimer’s develop what are called amyloid plaques, which consist of dense layers of protein molecules and cell material that build up in the brain. Plaques cause further oxidation and inflammation. Food containing antioxidants and other useful compounds may help slow the build-up and fight the unstable molecules or free radicals that damage the brain.
The main antioxidants are vitamin C or ascorbic acid, vitamin E, beta-carotene, selenium and polyphenol. Ascorbic acid can’t be stored in the body so it’s important that patients eat foods rich in this vitamin. The main sources are brightly colored fruit and vegetables, for example, broccoli, green leafy vegetables, potatoes, green peppers, cabbage, strawberries, blueberries and cranberries. Antioxidants give these vegetables and fruits their color. Plants produce antioxidants naturally to protect themselves against disease and pollution, and the benefits are passed on to us when we eat them.
A symposium on the health benefits of berries in 2007 heard that blueberries and cranberries may slow the cognitive decline in people with Alzheimer’s. A study found that aging mice manipulated to develop Alzheimer’s improved their cognition with high consumption of blueberries. In a study of about seventy older dogs, the University of California’s Institute for Brain Aging and Dementia found that dogs fed an antioxidant-rich diet had reduced amyloid plaque build-up.
Vitamin E has been found to slow down the progression of Alzheimer’s according to a 1997 study in the New England Journal of Medicine. Vitamin E is a fat-soluble vitamin and can be stored in the liver. Main sources include nuts and seeds, green leafy vegetables, whole grains, wheat germ, fish-liver oil and vegetable oil.
Another useful antioxidant that is thought to reduce the rate of cognitive decline in people with Alzheimer’s is beta-carotene. It protects orange, green and yellow fruit and vegetables from damage by solar radiation and is found in foods such as tomatoes, apricots, peaches, cantaloupe, sweet potatoes, spinach, broccoli, pumpkin and mangoes.
Selenium is a mineral that may help reduce cell damage and slow down the loss of brain function. It can be obtained through foods such as fish, shellfish, chicken, eggs, red meat, cereals and also vegetables if grown in soil with selenium.
Polyphenol antioxidants may also assist in reducing the progress of Alzheimer’s. Foods rich in polyphenol include broccoli, cabbage, celery, parsley and onion, as well as apples, cantaloupe, cherries, grapes, pears, plums, blackberries, blueberries, cranberries, raspberries and strawberries. It is also found in grains, most legumes, green tea, bee pollen, olive oil, chocolate and red wine.
It is not only foods with antioxidants that may help with Alzheimer’s. Vitamin B-12 is one of a group of eight water-soluble vitamins within the Vitamin B complex and has most relevance to Alzheimer’s, with deficits being linked to cognitive decline. The best sources are liver, shellfish, milk, cereals, trout, salmon and beef. Adequate intake of vitamin B-12 may slow down the progression of the disease.
Omega-3 can assist too as it helps control calcium levels. Excessive calcium in brain cells contribute to a build-up of amyloid plaques, which Alzheimer’s patients have in high quantities. Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in fish such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring, anchovies and sardines. It is also found in fruit such as kiwifruit, as well as eggs. Swedish studies have found a reduction in cognitive decline among people with mild Alzheimer’s who took omega-3 supplements.
Alyson Hendershot of Nutritionally Yours in the US runs seminars for Alzheimer’s patients on the best foods to eat. She recommends sticking with basic fresh foods and to eat a good variety of them. Her advice on what to avoid includes salt, preservatives, artificial colorings and flavorings, caffeine, white bread and cakes, sugary snacks and too much processed food in general.
Patrick Holford, who runs workshops on nutrition in the UK, believes that people with Alzheimer’s would benefit from eating wholefoods such as fresh vegetables and fruit, wholegrains, nuts and seeds, and to avoid highly processed or overcooked food. He says to avoid sugar in any form.
A range of food herbs that could improve or maintain cognition levels in those with Alzheimer’s include cinnamon, cloves, galangal, ginger, lemon balm and nutmeg. The antioxidants in these plants help reduce the damage by oxidants to the brain.
While many foods contain compounds that may show the progression of Alzheimer’s, it is important to note that no food or supplement, or any pharmaceutical or other treatment for that matter, offers a cure for the disease. So far they can only reduce a patient’s rate of decline or perhaps in some instances prevent it in the first case.