Alzheimer’s expert offers healthy eating tips to reduce your risk
Arm yourself with a stalk of broccoli. Or a tasty nicoise salad. Or a glass of grape juice.
How much can these healthy dietary choices protect you from Alzheimer’s? Here’s an example: Recent studies have shown people who drink plenty of fruit and vegetable juices have a 76 percent lower risk of dementia.
In other studies, eating a better diet helped people with mild cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s improve their scores on memory tests.
Results like these are pushing proper nutrition front and center in the battle against cognitive decline, and Isaacson is one of the neurologists leading the charge. He says eating the right foods — and avoiding the wrong ones — has an essential place in the battle plan against dementia.
“In order to most effectively manage Alzheimer’s, whether it’s to reduce someone’s risk or to treat them in the most optimal way, it’s like a war,” says Isaacson, director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York-Presbyterian Hospital.
“You need the Air Force, the Marines, the special forces; you need all the different avenues,” he says. “Everyone is looking for the blockbuster drug, but we also need dietary changes and exercise and changes in lifestyle. We need to hit this disease from every single angle.”
Isaacson says some of the best research on nutrition is relatively new, so many people still don’t realize how powerful the right dietary choices can be in protecting us from memory loss and dementia.
“It’s unfortunate that the dietary research has not been all over the front page,” he says. “I hope that little by little that will change.”
Isaacson is doing his part. He’s the co-author of The Alzheimer’s Prevention & Treatment Diet and a leading practitioner in the emerging field of personalized nutrition known as nutrigenomics.
His Alzheimer’s clinic at Weill Cornell emphasizes lifestyle and dietary approaches that anyone can take advantage of.
“There are dietary patterns and specific nutrients that make up the basics of a brain-healthy diet: green leafy vegetables, beans, omega-3 fatty acids and foods to avoid,” he says. “That’s what everyone should do.”
If you want to eat your way to better brain health, here are three good places to start:
1. Add more omega-3 fatty acids, one of the so-called “good” fats, to your meal plan.
“Most people do not have adequate omega-3 fatty acid levels when we check their blood; we see that a lot,” Isaacson says. Cold water fish, like salmon and tuna, are great sources of omega-3. So are walnuts, flaxseed and flaxseed oil, canola oil, seaweed, green leafy vegetables, tofu and other forms of soybeans.
2. Eat more fresh fruit and vegetables.
Numerous studies have shown these can improve cognition, especially the more brightly colored fruits and vegetables that are rich in antioxidants. Good choices are: spinach, kale, broccoli, carrots, squash, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, kiwi and bananas.
3. Reduce your consumption of “bad” carbohydrates, particularly foods like white bread, pasta, rice and high-fructose corn syrup.
Isaacson says this is particularly important. Carbohydrates account for 50 percent of the average American’s diet, and nutrition-related research shows that reducing carbs is one of the biggest factors in helping people with serious cognitive decline improve their memory.
Isaacson encourages his patients to limit carbs to something in the range of 130 to 150 grams a day. Most Americans eat way more than that. “My patients, when they initially start, are eating over 300 freaking grams of carbs a day, and that’s not even that much,” he says. “You can eat 300 grams of carbs a day and not really even bat an eyelash.”
On that point, he speaks from personal experience. He says the first time he measured his own intake of carbs, he was startled to discover he’d eaten 217 grams. “When I thought I was eating low-carb and I was over 200 grams of carbs, that was eye-opening for me,” he says. “So yes, one thing people can do is track their carbs.”
Beyond the dietary guidelines we all should follow, people with a higher risk of Alzheimer’s may benefit from a more targeted, personalized approach to nutrition. Isaacson’s clinic is doing leading work in nutrigenomics, the science of identifying a person’s individual nutritional needs based on genetics.
“What we’re finding in our practice is that different nutritional interventions work differently,” Isaacson says. “If Mr. Jones has one gene, he may need to eat A, B and C, but Mrs. Smith, well, she has a different set of genes, and she may need to eat X, Y and Z for the most brain healthy dietary effects.”
He says nutrigenomics is in its infancy, and in five to 10 years, “we’ll have a better playbook.” But even at this early stage, he says, it offers promise for people who have a family history of Alzheimer’s, or are at higher risk for other reasons, such uncontrolled conditions like high cholesterol or hypertension.
“Part of me wants to say everyone should (consider) this, but from a public health perspective, absolutely if you have a family history, those people should be the most aware of and in tune with the fact there is something you can do to reduce risk,” he says.
Whatever your risk, or whatever your level of interest in personalized nutrition, everyone can benefit from adopting a more brain-healthy approach to life, he adds. That includes:
- Eating better.
- Getting more exercise.
- Seeing your doctor regularly for wellness exams.
- Having your blood levels checked.
- Undergoing cognitive screening.
“If we can do these very low-risk, evidence-based lifestyle changes and incorporate them into our life,” he says, “I think that makes a ton of sense.”
Article courtesy of Tony Dearing for NJ.com