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Nutrition Connection: Food, Memory, & Alzheimer’s • Summer 2006

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Growing research in the area of functional foods tells us that beyond traditional nutrients like vitamins and minerals, certain components in food can have a profound impact on health. An example of this emerging science is the information we’re gathering about how what we eat affects our cognitive power or brain functioning.

Can what we eat really improve memory, or help us think more clearly, or slow down the progression of Alzheimer’s disease? Here is what we know today:

The Chocolate Connection

One of America’s favorite “guilt” foods is starting to look more like a health food. Chocolate, especially dark chocolate, is gaining recognition for its antioxidant effects that can improve cardiovascular health. But researchers are also looking at this another way. How well the brain functions depends, in part, on a healthy blood flow to the brain to supply its cells with oxygen and help them function. A study at Wheeling Jesuit University this year suggests that eating milk chocolate or dark chocolate improves attention span, reaction time, and memory. The effects are immediate.

Vegetables: Mom Was Right

And Mom was right about eating your vegetables. As reported in DMA eNews last fall, “Plenty of new research sheds light on our ideas about foods that nourish the brain. A study by King’s College London suggests eating vegetables boosts your memory by protecting levels of a biochemical (acetylcholine) that helps the brain work effectively. The number-one booster was broccoli. But other vegetables help too, say the researchers. Cabbage-family members, potatoes, radishes—and also fruits such as oranges and apples—have a similar effect.”

An Apple a Day

Whoever mentioned eating “an apple a day” was apparently on track, too. Like chocolate, apples are rich in antioxidants, chemicals that prevent a type of cellular damage in our bodies. A new study from the University of Massachusetts Lowell indicates that apples and apple juice in the diet can help keep brain cells healthy and slow down memory loss (Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, Dec. 2005).

While we can name particular foods known to help memory, the American Dietetic Association notes that eating plenty of fruits and vegetables in general is important for maintaining the best possible cognitive ability. Blueberries, strawberries, prunes, kiwi, dark leafy greens like spinach, and many others provide benefits. (ADA Position Paper on Nutrition, Aging, and the Continuum of Care). The ADA also points out that foods rich in vitamin E (e.g., dark green vegetables, nuts, olive oil, and other foods) help us take advantage of vitamin E as an antioxidant that can prevent brain cell damage. The ADA points to research linking adequate vitamin E intake with a lower risk of Alzheimer’s.

In Moderation

Another familiar nutrition adage is “Eat in moderation.” One of the newest research findings this year is that cutting back on calories may actually slow down brain-aging that leads to decline in our cognitive abilities. At the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, scientists have been studying the chemical changes involved in brain aging and Alzheimer’s. They say that limiting calorie intake over the years – and carbohydrate intake in particular – seems to limit the body’s production of chemicals that slowly damage the brain. (Journal of Biological Chemistry, June 2006). This was research on mice designed to pinpoint the chemistry of Alzheimer’s progression and is certainly not conclusive yet for humans, but it poses an interesting idea worth watching!

More investigation from the University of Florida suggests that eating just a little bit less – and exercising – can put the brakes on total aging of our bodies. The same chemical changes that make us older apply to every organ, including the brain. “In a calorie-restricted environment, you reduce the inflammatory response and prevent cell death,” explains researcher Christiaan Leeuwenburgh. The key advice is nothing extreme: about an 8 percent reduction in calories, or simply holding back enough to prevent the weight gain that tends to creep with advancing age.

The exercise connection is clear. Regular physical activity improves circulation and definitely keeps our brains alert. This is a brain-power effect we can enjoy from day to day. Over the years, though, it may also contribute to healthy aging, protecting all major organs of the body, including the brain.

In a related finding, scientists note that being overweight is a definite risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s’ disease. Carrying extra body fat seems to trigger an inflammatory process in the body. This process, which leads to cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes, also causes chemical changes in the brain. (Journal of Alzheimer’s’ Disease, Dec. 2005).

There is also research underway to understand a link between Type 2 diabetes and development of Alzheimer’s disease. Experts say that the way the brain uses glucose to fuel its activity may be impaired. Is their a dietary solution? As of yet, no. Scientists are working to sort out the biochemistry of this finding, and answers for improving how brain cells use glucose to fuel their activity may be coming soon.

Is Fish Brain Food?

Eating fish at least once a week is good for the brain, slowing age-related mental decline. The omega-3 fatty acids in fatty fish such as salmon and tuna are associated with a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, as well as having a heart attack or stroke. It appears that this type of fatty acid helps to maintain healthy brain cells and promote nerve transmissions. In a study of Chicago residents, people who ate fish once a week had a 10% slower decline in their ability to think and perform mental tasks. (Archives of Neurology, October 2005).

Aging, Dementia, or Alzheimer’s?

Research on diet and the brain tackles every piece of a continuum – from how healthy individuals think as they age, to the prevention or improvement of Alzheimer’s disease, which is truly a disease (not just “old age”). What are the differences among these conditions?

Dementia is not a one-size fits all condition. It develops at different rates and to different degrees in different people. A person experiencing dementia may ask the same question again and again, become lost in a familiar place, have difficulty following directions, become disoriented as to time and place, or fail to take care of personal safety, health, and hygiene.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, a serious, progressive brain disorder that prevents normal functioning and impairs activities of daily living. Today, Alzheimer’s afflicts about 4.5 million Americans, including 5 percent of those aged 65-74, and half of those over 85.The exact causes of Alzheimer’s disease are not clear, and there is no cure. We do know that in the disease, the brain changes, developing tangles of nerve fibers and areas of dead cells. Another form of dementia is called multi-infarct dementia, which has to do with blood circulation in the brain.

Yet another, less serious condition is called mild cognitive impairment (MCI). This is not Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, but does cause problems with focusing attention, critical thinking, memory, or using language. The majority of MCI cases do not turn into Alzheimer’s disease, but some do over time.

Some conditions can cause a temporary dementia. An example is a high fever. Dehydration, a common challenge in nursing homes, is always a concern because it can cause confusion and other symptoms that can be misinterpreted as dementia. Depression can also affect a person’s responses and may mimic dementia. Today, physicians sometimes prescribe medications to improve mental functioning.

Brain Food

Gradually, we are learning that a healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, vitamin E, and fish – and one that promotes a healthy weight – may help each of us maintain the best possible mental functioning at all stages of life. As we age, attention to weight management, exercise, and dietary choices may help slow down brain cell damage and keep us a little bit younger mentally.

More Information
Alzheimer’s Association,


If you are serving an older population, offering sound dietary choices can help give every client the best possible “leg up” on keeping the brain healthy, and has the potential to slow disease progression. It may be as simple as offering fresh berries or apples as a dessert, or cutting back some extra fat from entrees, or replacing head lettuce with dark green leafy vegetables, or adding some salmon to the weekly menu.


By Sue Grossbauer