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People in Spain are diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease at a rate only about one-half that in northern Europe. Could the decisive factor be diet?
Diet makes a difference in whether you get Alzheimer's. Among people who have a genetic predisposition to senile dementia, simply eating less, a series of studies have shown, reduces the risk of ever developing Alzheimer's disease in the first place. Once Alzheimer's disease has set in, a Mediterranean diet slows its progress and keeps people healthier longer.
The Peculiar Probabilities Of Getting Alzheimer's Disease
The data on Alzheimer's disease defy a lot of "common sense" predictions about lifestyle and health. Highly educated people lose their cognitive abilities faster and die faster when they develop Alzheimer's. In the US, people of African-American descent are more likely to get Alzheimer's, but they are also more responsive to dietary changes.
The goal is not lose weight. The faster people lose weight once they have Alzheimer's, the sooner they die. Heavier people live longer when they have age-related dementia. The goal is to eat a nutritious diet, and a series of studies suggest that a Mediterranean diet is best for preventing and slowing the course of this scourge of old age.
What Is A Mediterranean Diet?
Most researchers characterize a Mediterranean diet as:
- High in fruits and vegetables. "High" would be five or more servings a day.
- High in legumes and whole grains. An average of one serving a day of each would qualify.
- Low in dairy product consumption, just one or two servings a day, and including mostly fermented dairy products (yogurt and cheese).
- Low in saturated fat consumption, high in olive oil consumption.
- Low in meat and poultry consumption, no more than a serving a day.
- High in fish consumption, three to five servings a week.
- Moderate in alcohol consumption, a drink a day, maybe two, with meals.
How Much Difference Does A Mediterranean Diet Make In Alzheimer's Disease?
Researchers at the Taub Institute for Research in Alzheimer's Disease and the Aging Brain at the Columbia University Medical Center in New York City have found that people of all races who eat a Mediterranean diet have less deterioration of DNA as they get older. The telomeres, which are long sequences of DNA that keep the two strands of the double helix lined up in the right order, don't break down as quickly in old age in people who eat more vegetables and less meat.
Whether this is the real way eating healthy protects the brain or not, the net effect of healthy diet on Alzheimer's patients was, on average, about five additional years of life. However, if the Mediterranean diet is started early enough, it can also give people about five additional years of relatively healthy life. This simple style of eating has been found to slow the progression of mild cognitive impairment (the "forgetting the car keys" stage of senile dementia) to full-blown Alzheimer's by several years. People who adhere to a Mediterranean diet are:
- 27 percent less likely to develop mild cognitive impairment and
- 35 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer's even if they do.
Eating delicious food seems like a small price to pay for staying mentally sharp. A Spanish diet approach, however, is even more productive.