There has been a great deal in the media recently to raise awareness of advances in the treatment of dementia and in particular Alzheimer’s.

However, there is very little targeted advice on how to prevent the onset of this disease or to help slow down its progression if diagnosed in the early stages. Reports have pointed out that a healthy diet and exercise can help reduce risk but there are some very specific elements of your diet on which you can focus.

As with other conditions like heart disease or Type 2 diabetes, where a healthy diet reduces risk, what you eat has a significant impact on your likelihood of developing dementia. Your brain consumes 40% of the calories you eat but even more importantly it is hungry for nutrients to maintain a good state of health and protect against disease. A healthy brain needs 3 key ingredients: 

  • A good flow of oxygen
  • A steady supply of energy in the form of glucose
  • A plentiful supply of key nutrients

You also need to ensure that you limit your exposure to substances which will impede brain function or use up vital nutrients to process them (these include alcohol, high sugar foods, carbon monoxide and some metals e.g. cadmium, lead, mercury and copper). 

For your brain to work properly you need to be able to make new brain cells and to make the chemicals your brain needs to function properly. Both of these activities rely on a biochemical process called methylation, which happens a billion times a second. For methylation to take place some important vitamins and minerals need to be constantly available to the body (B vitamins, zinc, folic acid). These nutrients are provided by the food that you eat. In the case of B vitamins they are not stored in the body to any great extent and therefore need to be frequently included in your diet. 

If methylation is not working properly, your body produces a substance called homocysteine which increases your risk of developing Alzheimer’s and the rate at which it progresses once you have it. Homocysteine is a useful marker of your risk of Alzheimer’s and it can be easily measured in your blood. This is a great advantage as it can be used to assess your risk way ahead of the onset of any symptoms unlike expensive brain scans which are often used only when the disease is well advanced. A score of over 14 indicates a twofold increase in the risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

It is important to start early with your risk assessment and prevention measures. Consider that if symptoms start to appear some years before dementia is actually diagnosed, then changes to the brain may have started to occur some ten years prior to that.

So what can you do to ensure that your homocysteine does not reach high levels and if they do what measures can you take to reduce it?

To keep homocysteine levels down you need a diet rich in certain B vitamins, folic acid and zinc. Regularly eating foods rich in these nutrients can be beneficial. Outlined below are the richest food sources of these nutrients. However, if tests reveal that your homocysteine levels are high a supplement regime to initially get the levels down may be the most effective way to get you back on track. For this you may need to consult a nutritional expert to help you assess your requirements and monitor your progress.

Food sources of Key Nutrients:

Vitamin B2: Yeast extract, liver, almonds, mackerel, Atlantic salmon, trout, sesame seeds, peas, spinach 

Vitamin B6: Tuna, chicken, turkey, cod, sunflower seeds, spinach, banana, avocado

Vitamin B12: Sardines, salmon, lamb, prawns, scallops, grass fed beef, yoghurt, cod, milk from grass fed cows, tofu, eggs

Folic Acid: Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, liver, spinach, asparagus, peas, chickpeas, brown rice, fortified breakfast cereals

Zinc: Oysters, beef, crab, pork, baked beans, dark chicken meat, yoghurt, cashews, chickpeas, almonds

By Ceri Morgan Nutritional Therapist (BA Hons, DipN, MBant, CNHC)

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