Alzheimer’s and Dementia. How nutrition can help.

Current statistics say that three in ten people over the age of 70 will suffer from significant mental decline. In Europe, 1 million people develop memory impairment each year, of which half of them are then later diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.


In America the disease affects over 5 million people, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. They say it affects 10% of Americans over the age of 65 and 50% of those over 85. Currently in Britain more than half a million people suffer from Alzheimer’s Disease (AD), costing the National Health Service £23 billion a year.  With an ever-aging population, these figures do not make for positive reading. The good news however, is that there are many current research areas suggesting that age-related mental decline could be prevented, especially with an optimum nutritional approach.

Getting radical

Dr. Perlmutter, a neurologist who has been working in this field for twenty years, says that, “the standard American diet is a nightmare. It is loaded with poor-quality fat that makes brain cells sluggish.” The healthy fats needed to keep brain cells flexible and “smart” are missing from the diet. Highly processed, nutrient deficient foods are packed with sugar and chemical additives that actually invite free radical damage into our brains.  He says that simple changes in our diets can protect our brains against aging, debility, and disease.

“For Alzheimer’s victims”, he says, “there is compelling evidence that free radicals play a major role in triggering the growth of plaque. Alzheimer’s is preventable and it’s proven that medicines used for Alzheimer’s patients don’t work.” The answer he believes is through prevention and that the most important nutrient for the brain is fat because the brain is made of it. “The problem is that if we feed it unhealthy fats, we wind up with an unhealthy brain.”

Connecting the dots

New brain cells are continuously being made, even as we get older. Current research in nutrition is focusing on how to encourage new brain cell growth, as well as protecting the brain from antioxidant damage. Only one in a hundred cases of Alzheimer’s is caused by genetics and much research now points to dietary and lifestyle factors.

Underlying factors related to Alzheimer’s Disease may include :

  • Lack of B vitamins and subsequent raised homocysteine levels
  • Acetylcholine and precursor deficiency
  • Lack of omega 3 fats
  • Lack of antioxidant nutrients
  • Excessive stress hormone production (cortisol)
  • A genetic predisposition
  • An inactive lifestyle
  • Lack of mental exercise
  • Metabolic syndrome, diabetes and insulin resistance
  • Heavy metal toxicity

Homocysteine – the missing link?

Latest nutritional research suggests that high homocysteine levels increase our risk of developing brain damage. Homocysteine is a toxic amino acid, which in excess, is a neurotoxin that can directly damage the medial temporal lobe – the area of the brain that rapidly degenerates in AD. Homocysteine levels can easily be lowered with supplementation of B vitamins. B12 is a common deficiency in the elderly.


8 important nutritional & lifestyle factors that should be considered for Alzheimer’s prevention and treatment

1. B vitamins. High homocysteine levels can be easily lowered with B vitamins. There has also been much research to suggest that low levels of folic acid (which leads to raised homocysteine) may cause brain damage that triggers dementia and Alzheimer’s. Niacin has received much attention as well as vitamins B12 and folate.

2. Omega 3 fats. A vital component of brain cell membranes, as well as controlling excess brain inflammation. Healthy brain cell membranes are important in controlling calcium flow in and out of brain cells. Too much calcium inside brain cells is known to contribute to the production of the toxic beta-amyloid protein, which is found in excessive levels in most people with Alzheimer’s.

The best sources are: salmon, fresh tuna, herring/kipper, mackerel, sardines, anchovy, trout, (due to tuna being high in mercury, eat it only twice a month), raw nuts & seeds, such as flax and pumpkin, almonds and walnuts, as well as cold pressed seed oils, like flax, for salad dressings and extra virgin olive oil.

In summary, eat fish at least twice a week, seeds on most days , especially ground and sprinkled on breakfast, and supplement with quality omega 3 fish oils. It’s important also to minimise your intake of fried foods, avoid trans fats and saturated fats, as they produce free radicals and increase inflammation.

3. Antioxidants. Even though free radicals are produced naturally as a by-product of normal cell functioning, high levels of free radical activity causes cellular damage and increases the risk of mental decline in the brain. Antioxidants eliminate free radicals from your body. Antioxidants include nutrients vitamin A, C, E, beta-carotene and others such as cysteine, lipoic acid, anthocyanidins, glutathione, co-enzyme Q10 and melatonin.

Increase intake of fresh fruit and vegetables – aim for around six portions a day and eat as many colours of these foods as possible. Eat organic where you can. Vitamin C can be found in citrus fruits, red peppers, spinach, tomatoes and kiwis and vitamin E is found in cold pressed vegetable and nut oils, whole grain foods and avocado. Dark-skinned fruits and vegetables have the highest levels of naturally occurring antioxidants. Regularly eat kale, spinach, brussels sprouts, alfalfa sprouts, broccoli, beetroot, red pepper, onion, aubergine, prunes, raisins, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, plums, oranges, red grapes and cherries.

In addition to foods, antioxidants could be supplemented in an all-round antioxidant formula that contains a variety of antioxidants, including N- acetyl-cysteine and/or reduced glutathione and Co-enzyme Q10, as well as a separate vitamin C dosage of at least 2000mg per day.

Avoid increasing your risk of free radical damage by avoiding cigarette smoke and pollution where possible.

4. The stress connection. Stress increases the body’s production of the adrenal hormone cortisol, which when raised, can damage the brain. Professor Robert Sapolsky at Stanford University recommends that corticosteroid drugs should not be used in Alzheimer’s patients for other medical problems like asthma or arthritis, due to this detrimental action of high cortisol levels in the brain. Prolonged stress can lead to adrenal exhaustion, whereby the body makes a limited amount of cortisol. This can increase inflammation. Like everything in life, it’s all a question of balance. Finding ways to minimize stress, especially over the long term, seems to be crucial for the prevention of brain decline.

5. Acetylcholine and memory. Commonly prescribed medicines for Alzheimer’s block the re-uptake of acetylcholine in the brain. Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter that is responsible for connecting memories together. Regardless of whichever contributing factors are responsible for the cellular brain damage in Alzheimer’s, once the damage has occurred, there is always memory loss. A memory is thought to be put into storage by the neurotransmitter acetylcholine and Alzheimer’s sufferers have shown deficiencies in acetylcholine, maybe because the acetylcholine-producing cells in the brain have been damaged. As acetylcholine plays a role in connecting memories, as well as storing them, even if a memory is intact, without enough acetylcholine one part of a memory may be unable to be connected with others, such as being able to recognise a face, but not being able to remember the name.

Nutritional approaches focus on supplementing with nutrients that the brain uses to make acetylcholine, such as phosphatidyl choline, which itself is made from DMAE and phosphatidyl serine. One of the issues here is that for the phosphatidyl choline to be made, sufficient vitamin B5, zinc and magnesium are needed! B5 and magnesium are depleted in times of stress (again the stress connection may play a role here). You can see why taking a good all-round multivitamin and mineral supplement may be of benefit.

Phospholipids are found in eggs and lecithin capsules or granules.  Ensure that you eat organic eggs from chickens that have been fed on flax seeds for additional omega 3 content. Many memory-enhancing supplements may contain phosphatidyl choline, phosphatidyl serine, DMAE or pyroglutamate.

6. Ginkgo Biloba has been widely studied for its ability to enhance cognitive function and specifically for prevention of cognitive decline where early symptoms are present. It is also a great antioxidant. Taking acetylcholine enhancers alongside ginkgo biloba may be worth considering.

7. Exercise for your brain and body. Regular physical exercise, such as walking, increases oxygen and nutrients to the brain and helps keep the body healthy. Mind and brain exercises, such as crosswords and puzzles help to keep the brain cells firing. Learning new things also helps in the prevention of cognitive decline.

8. Toxic metals. Many links have been made between heavy metal toxicity and brain function decline, in particular, mercury and aluminium. If you have amalgam fillings, have them removed. Do not use aluminium pans  for cooking, or deodorants that contain aluminium salts. (To reduce your overall toxic burden, it would be wise to switch to all-natural cosmetics and body care products). Ensure the water you drink is filtered or natural mineral water. Nutritionists can run hair mineral analysis tests (HMA) to investigate further.

Be responsible for your own mental health now.

Everybody is able to make changes to prevent decline in brain function with age, yet those that are already suffering from the effects of Alzheimer’s Disease or dementia are unable to make these changes for themselves. It is stressful for the family members who often are left trying to deal with the tragic circumstances of rapidly declining brain function in their loved one. It is important to seek the help of a health professional who can work alongside the doctor if there is an interest in exploring alternatives to medicine, as drug interactions and contraindications need to be considered. Even without supplementation, making changes to the diet can have huge benefits.


Article by Jo Rowkins dipNT MBANT, nutritionist and founder of awakening health.


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