Links between diet and dementia have been crystallizing for years, but until recently, there’s been little understanding about why, exactly, the risk of dementia increases with a poor diet.
Better understanding of the links between diet and dementia could help millions of Americans reduce their risk of developing dementia. And these breakthroughs can also help slow the progression of cognitive decline in those who already have dementia.
Dementia and Diet: A Look at Recent Breakthroughs
People who eat high-calorie, high-sugar diets are at increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, a 2015 study conducted by Meritorious Autonomous University of Puebla in Mexico found.
High-calorie, high-sugar diets led to inflammation and degeneration of two important memory centers in the brains of laboratory rodents in the study—but researchers weren’t able to conclude exactly why.
In 2016, however, researchers at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom built on those earlier findings about diet and dementia. They linked sugar to a specific “tipping point” in the brain at the onset of Alzheimer's disease.
Glycation, which occurs when sugar in the blood attaches to proteins and forms new molecules, damages the brain’s macrophage migration inhibitory factor (MIF) enzymes, which are responsible for immune response and insulin control, researchers found. MIF enzymes also respond to buildups of abnormal proteins in the brain, like the plaques and tangles associated with Alzheimer’s. This could be the “tipping point” in the progression of Alzheimer’s, researchers found.
Taken together, these studies show how important our understandings of links between diet and dementia are to preventing and slowing this disease’s progression.
Dementia and Diet: What Happens When Diet Isn’t a Priority?
Much attention has been given to dementia prevention through balanced diet, but there are significant benefits to focusing on nutrition for those battling dementia, too.
The immediate impact of not focusing on diet is unhealthy weight loss, lack of mobility, frailty, skin fragility, and worsening of underlying health conditions. Long-term, poor nutrition leads to more rapid cognitive decline, more emotional outbursts in people with dementia, and even morbidity.
Balanced diets—in particular, diets rich in vitamins C, E, B12, and B9—help people with dementia retain their cognitive abilities for longer, research shows, and help improve overall mood. Nutritional support needs to be at the top of the list for every dementia care plan.
Dementia and Diet: Home Care vs. Memory Care Community Support
Understanding a loved one’s resistance to balanced meals can be difficult for family caregivers to understand, and people battling dementia are often unable to articulate those reasons.
For those living with dementia at home, planning balanced meals and purchasing groceries are challenges, not to mention actually cooking meals. And people with dementia often have to be reminded to eat each meal, which is difficult for family caregivers balancing other obligations.
Even when someone battling dementia sits down for a meal, eating often doesn’t come easy. Loss of motor skills can make eating a physical challenge, frustration and apathy can make eating an emotional challenge, and diminished taste and sense organs that signal hunger can make eating unpleasurable.
Memory care communities offer nutritional support and meal programs tailored specifically for individuals with dementia. In addition to providing nutritionally balanced meals, some memory care meal programs focus on preparing the food in bite-sized offerings that are easy to handle, chew, and swallow. This not only improves the nutritional intake of those battling dementia, but it makes eating an enjoyable form of occupational therapy, too.
Diet and Dementia: The Final Word
New breakthroughs in links between diet and dementia are seemingly emerging all the time. Recent findings indicate that high-sugar diets can lead to deterioration of brain enzymes that respond to protein build-ups on the brain, like tangles that present in some forms of dementia. Additionally, the importance of focusing on nutritionally balanced diets to slow cognitive decline in those battling dementia is clear. Memory care communities offer nutritional support and dining programs that address specific eating challenges that lead to malnutrition. For more information about dementia, download the free guide Comparing Dementia Care and Living Options.