Older Australians eating their way towards Alzheimer's

Older Australians consuming red meat, foods loaded with sugar and trans fats and other pro-inflammatory foods are eating their towards Alzheimer’s, says a new Neurology report.

Those with diets featuring fruits, vegies, beans and other foods with inflammation-cooling properties will have much lower odds of developing dementia.

People with diets packed with pro-inflammatory foods are up to three times more likely to experience memory loss and issues with language, problem-solving and other cognitive skills.

“A less inflammatory diet relates to less risk for developing dementia,” says study author Associate Professor Nikolaos Scarmeas.

His research goes a long way towards proving that the right food can help stave off dementia and preserve brain health, although exactly how isn’t fully understood yet.

“Diet may affect brain health via many mechanisms, and according to our findings, inflammation may be one of them,” says Assoc. Prof. Scarmeas.

His team studied more than 1000 people in Greece with an average age of 73.

Each participant completed a questionnaire to determine the inflammatory potential of their diet. While no participant had dementia when the study began, six per cent developed the condition in about three years.

Dietary inflammation scores range from -8.87 to 7.98. Scores at the higher end indicate a pro- inflammatory diet.

Read: Four of the best superfoods to help reduce inflammation

The lower the score, says the study, the less likely participants were to develop dementia, and each one-point increase towards an inflammatory diet increased a participant’s likelihood of dementia by 21 per cent.

People with low scores ate about 20 servings of fruit, 19 of vegetables, four of beans or other legumes, and 11 of coffee or tea each week, while people with the highest scores ate only about nine servings of fruit, 10 of vegetables, two of legumes and nine of coffee or tea per week.

Assoc. Prof. Scarmeas says that nutrients in the consumed food contribute most to its inflammatory potential, and that all food has both pro- and anti-inflammatory ingredients.

“In general, a diet with more fruits, vegetables, beans, tea or coffee is a more anti-inflammatory one,” he says.

While his research suggests those types of food can help stave off dementia, he is careful to point out that it does not prove that anti-inflammatory foods prevent brain ageing and dementia, only that there’s a link between them.

Larger and longer studies are needed before any conclusions can be made on how inflammatory diet score affects brain health.

Read: Link between inflammation and mental sluggishness

Swinburne University Professor Con Stough, who was not involved in the study, says the link between inflammatory diets and dementia may not yet be understood, but believes microbiomes in the gut may play a part

“Different foods can also increase the levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines … Increased inflammation or systemic inflammation can directly damage neurons as well as impact cardiovascular function,” he says. “Both direct damage to the brain and changes in cardiovascular function could contribute to cognitive decline as well as increase dementia risk.

“If you rule out a non-causative explanation – that people with dementia or who are already at risk of dementia show behaviours that exacerbate their poor diets, such as not cooking nutritional foods, eating out at fast food places more often, etcetera, then there could be many mechanisms. Many of these we simply don’t really understand,” Prof. Stough told Medical News Today.

“Certainly, the microbiome could have a huge impact. What we eat seems to impact … the diversity of our microbiome, or the bacteria that live in our microbiome. Gut bacteria appear to have a role for inflammation themselves and produce peptides that can increase inflammation (bad bacteria).

“As we get older, too, there is greater leakage from the gut [that] also causes inflammation, so having a bad diet could increase the number of pro-inflammatory bacteria in the gut.”

Dr Thomas Holland, from Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, said the findings go a long way towards proving the brain benefits of anti-inflammatory foods.

“This study is lending further weight to the mechanism inflammation – specifically neuro-inflammation – that much of us understand as being one of the main players in causing cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s dementia,” he said.

Dr Holland recommends the MIND diet, the Mediterranean diet or the DASH diet as the best for brain health.

All three diets feature lean meats, fish, whole grains, fresh produce and olive oil. The MIND (or Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) diet was specifically designed to help combat dementia.

Read: MIND diet significantly lowers your risk of Alzheimer’s disease

Dr Holland said that to boost brain health and to decrease the strength and/or duration of the inflammatory process in your body and brain, a diet rich in berries, dark leafy greens, nuts, whole wheat, garlic, onions, peppers, tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil, non-fried dark fish and poultry should be on your menu.

“Avoiding a Western-type diet pattern is also important, including reduced intake of whole-fat dairy, fried or fast foods, pastries and red meat,” he said.

He concluded by saying that pro-inflammatory foods can lead to uncontrolled inflammation and brain damage.

“If that damage occurs in the brain, the potential to develop dementia exists,” he said.

How many pro-inflammatory foods do you have in your regular diet? Why not share your thoughts on this research in the comments section below?

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Written by Leon Della Bosca

Leon Della Bosca has worked in publishing and media in one form or another for around 25 years. He's a voracious reader, word spinner and art, writing, design, painting, drawing, travel and photography enthusiast. You'll often find him roaming through galleries or exploring the streets of his beloved Melbourne and surrounding suburbs, sketchpad or notebook in hand, smiling.
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