Today is World Alzheimer’s Action Day, a day set aside by the Alzheimer’s Association to draw attention to and raise awareness for a disease that affects millions of families across the United States. Supporters are encouraged to don the color purple and host Alzheimer’s Walks or other events to raise money for national or local organizations that provide education and assistance to Alzheimer’s patients and their families.
In July, Physicians Committee President, Dr. Neal Barnard, attended the International Conference on Nutrition and the Brain where he spoke on the value of nutrition and brain health. While there is no cure for this chronic and ultimately disabling disease, Dr. Barnard is urging physicians to stress a preventative approach to their patients in the form of dietary changes. “A generation ago, we beat tobacco. The current generation of clinicians is in a battle over food—especially Alzheimer’s-promoting foods such as those which contain saturated and trans fats,” explained Dr. Barnard, M.D. “Research is rarely clean and unambiguous. But we potentially have the capabilities to prevent a disease that is poised to affect 100 million people worldwide by 2050. Why wait?”
Dr. Barnard believes a healthful diet and exercise can play a large role in reducing the risk for cognitive decline. Recently, Dr. Barnard provided a list of super foods intended to protect the brain, as well as a contrasting list showing which foods can cause irreparable damage over time. A few specifics are listed below, as well as in the graph above.
- Nuts and seeds are rich in vitamin E, which has been shown to help prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Especially good sources are almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, pine nuts, pecans, pistachios, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, and flaxseed. Just one ounce—a small handful—each day is plenty.
- Blueberries and grapes get their deep colors from anthocyanins, powerful antioxidants shown to improve learning and recall in studies at the University of Cincinnati.
- Sweet potatoes are the dietary staple of Okinawans, the longest-lived people on Earth who are also known for maintaining mental clarity into old age. Sweet potatoes are extremely rich in beta-carotene, a powerful antioxidant.
- Beans and chickpeas have vitamin B6 and folate, as well as protein and calcium, with no saturated fat or trans fat.
- Vitamin B12 is essential for healthy nerves and brain cells. While many people have trouble absorbing vitamin B12 from foods, B12 in supplements is highly absorbable. Together, folate, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12 eliminate homocysteine, which can build up in the bloodstream—rather like factory waste—and damage the brain.
- Saturated fats, found in meats, dairy products, and eggs, appear to encourage the production of beta-amyloid plaques within the brain. The Chicago Health and Aging Study reported in the Archives of Neurology in 2003 that people consuming the most saturated fat had more than triple the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, compared with people who generally avoided these foods.
- Trans fats, found in doughnuts and snack pastries, have been shown to increase Alzheimer’s risk more than fivefold. These “bad fats” raise cholesterol levels and apparently increase production of the beta-amyloid protein that collects in plaques in the brain as Alzheimer’s disease begins.
- Excess Copper. The body needs traces of copper to make enzymes. In excess, copper impairs cognition—even in mid-adulthood—and ends up in the plaques of Alzheimer’s disease. It comes from copper pipes and nutritional supplements.
- Aluminum: Aluminum’s role in the brain remains controversial. However, because aluminum has been found in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients, it pays to err on the side of caution. Avoid uncoated aluminum cookware and read labels when buying baking powder, antacids, and processed foods.
In addition to following a healthy diet and avoiding metals, Dr. Barnard recommends exercise at least three times per week, even if that means simply walking around the neighborhood. Today the Alzheimer’s Association encourages you to throw on a purple shirt, get up, get out, eat right and take charge of your health.