As research into Alzheimer’s disease and dementia continues to be stymied in its quest to find a cure, many researchers and health experts are turning to potential links between diet and brain health as possible determining factors in the onset and progression of dementia.
One Canadian doctor, Dr. W. Gifford-Jones, thinks there may be a link between a high intake of Vitamin C and a lower risk for Alzheimer’s. In an editorial for Victoria’s Time Colonist this past weekend, he noted that none of the patients he knows who have taken high levels of Vitamin C developed the disease. More rigorous studies don’t isolate Vitamin C in particular, but are finding what appears to be a link between diet and Alzheimer’s.
Alzheimer’s is a progressive neurodegenerative disease, meaning that it involves the death of brain cells and tissue loss and that over time, those afflicted are left with fewer healthy brain cells, fewer connections between cells and an overall shrinkage in brain volume.
The effects in terms of cognitive decline are well documented: memory loss, confusion and disorientation along with sometimes severe mood and personality changes are some of the main symptoms.
Looking at the brain tissue of Alzheimer patients, scientists have found that plaques, abnormal growths of protein fragments, have built up between brain cells and that tangles of protein strands have interfered with the transmission between nerve cells.
Why these effects occur is still unknown, but some risk factors for Alzheimer’s and dementia have been offered as possible links, including age, past head trauma, genetic and family history and lifestyle factors such as exercise, obesity, high blood pressure, smoking and diet.
Recent studies have suggested that a diet full of antioxidant-rich foods and low in fats and salt could be connected to brain health and preventing dementia, the desired effect of such diets being to keep a healthy blood flow and oxygenation of the brain. The Mediterranean diet, for example, involving fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains and olive oil, has been associated with the delay of cognitive decline, finding that those more closely adhering to the Mediterranean diet were less likely to develop pre-Alzheimer’s symptoms (mild cognitive impairment).
Another diet on offer recently is the MIND diet, a combination of the Mediterranean approach and the DASH diet (standing for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), again involving lots of fruits and vegetables, a moderate amount of protein but also high in fibre and nutrient-rich foods that help lower blood pressure.
A new study from Wake Forest University in the US has found that beetroot juice, with its high level of dietary nitrate (helpful in enhancing blood flow in the body), turns out to be effective in helping the brains of older adults perform more efficiently. The study involved men and women over the age of 55 who did not exercise and had high blood pressure. Participants were put on exercise programs and half of them received a beetroot juice supplement as well. Those receiving the supplement fared better than those without.
“We knew, going in, that a number of studies had shown that exercise has positive effects on the brain,” said W. Jack Rejeski of the Department of Health and Exercise Science at Wake Forest and study co-author. “But what we showed in this brief training study of hypertensive older adults was that, as compared to exercise alone, adding a beet root juice supplement to exercise resulted in brain connectivity that closely resembles what you see in younger adults.”
Vitamin deficiencies have also been studied for their potential link to brain degeneration, with some associations demonstrated between deficiencies in vitamins C, D, B12, E and A and risk of dementia.
About 564,000 Canadians are currently living with dementia, according to the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada, a number that is expected to grow to 937,000 in 15 years.