The Two Fundamentals of a Brain Healthy Diet

Last week I had the opportunity to participate in a Google Hangout discussing dietary recommendations in response to a case presentation of an elderly woman who was beginning to experience decline in cognitive function.

Basically, the case was selected as she was experiencing mild cognitive impairment (MCI), generally thought to be a harbinger of future Alzheimer’s disease.

Alzheimer’s disease, far and away the most common form of dementia, now affects some 5.4 million Americans, representing the third leading cause of death in our country. This number is predicted to double in just the next 15 years! Moreover, women are disproportionately at risk, representing 65% of Alzheimer’s cases. In fact, a woman’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease now exceeds her risk of developing breast cancer. The annual cost for caring for Alzheimer’s patients exceeds $200 billion, and this is a disease for which we currently have no meaningful treatment.

While we know that there is certainly a role for genetics in determining who is at risk for this disease, there is obviously much more to the story. If it were solely a gene-related issue, we wouldn’t be seeing a sudden explosion in new cases, as is now occurring.

As you will see in the video, I went into great depth in terms of the importance of adopting a low-carbohydrate, higher-fat diet as an intervention designed to help preserve functionality in this patient’s brain.

Researchers at the Mayo Clinic, publishing in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, reported the results of their study in which they explored the role of diet as it relates to dementia risk. They followed a group of over 2,000 elderly individuals for close to 4 years and carefully monitored their diets with respect to consumption of protein, fat and carbohydrate. The subjects also underwent mental evaluations every 15 months to determine if they were developing any issues related to dementia.

The results of the study were impressive by any measure. The risk of dementia in those at the higher end of the scale in terms of carbohydrate consumption increased by close to 90%. Those whose calories came more from fat were found to have a reduced risk of becoming demented by around 44%. Higher protein consumption was also associated with reduced dementia risk, by around 21%.

In the discussion section of the report the authors call attention to other studies that relate these dietary parameters to brain health and function. They summarize research describing how reducing carbohydrate consumption is associated with reduced risk of mental decline. In addition, they point out results from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey revealing that a diet with a high percentage of fat is associated with better processing speed, learning and memory while lower processing speed was associated with a diet that favored higher carbohydrate foods. This information is important because beyond looking at risk for developing dementia, it relates diet to moment-to-moment brain function, and this clearly has merit as it relates to the patient in this discussion.

You will note at the end of this interview that I was strongly in favor of recommending dietary restriction of carbohydrate, while boosting dietary fat as a preventive measure for everyone who is at risk for Alzheimer’s disease. When you consider that the risk for this disease is 50/50 at age 85 years, clearly we are all at risk.

Can someone please pass the olive oil?

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