A staggering 5.7 million Americans are currently living with Alzheimer’s disease (AD), a neurodegenerative disorder known for robbing minds of their memory and family members of their loved ones. While scientists still haven’t culminated a cure, there are some foods that play a significant role in Alzheimer’s prevention.
How Does Alzheimer’s Disease Affect the Brain?
Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, which is simply a group of symptoms linked to brain function impairment. Essentially, Alzheimer’s disrupts the communication between the brain’s tens of billions of neurons and the electrical and chemical signals it sends to other parts of the body. With Alzheimer’s disease, the brain forms lumps of a protein fragment called beta-amyloid, which clump together and disrupt cell communication—causing inflammation that ultimately leads to cell death. Since AD is a progressive disease, it advances by destroying neurons associated with memory first and then moves onto the cerebral cortex (which is responsible for language, reasoning, and social behavior) and subsequently disrupts life functions, leading to death.
Despite the myriad of research surrounding how AD works and the unfortunate lack of a definitive cure, multiple scientific studies have found that certain foods and nutrients—such as the ones below—are strongly protective against the development of AD.
Some of the nutrients associated with preventing Alzheimer’s include monounsaturated fat, polyunsaturated fat, and vitamin E, a 2010 study found. Luckily, a ubiquitous supermarket staple has all three nutrients: walnuts. Plant-based omega-3s, such as those found in walnuts, are known as ALA fatty acids, which are precursors to making brain-fog-banishing EPA and DHA. While you can snack on the polyunsaturated-fat-filled nuts on their own, tossing them over salads, blending them into smoothies, or using them to make a crunchy crust for pan-roasted fish are all great ways to get more in your diet.
Cinnamon for Alzheimer’s prevention? Don’t consider this an excuse to step into Starbucks for another Pumpkin Spice Latte. Ceylon cinnamon has been shown to inhibit the formation of tau, a protein that collects and tangles inside neurons and blocks neurons’ transport system, leading to Alzheimer’s, a study in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease found. Apparently, the warm spice’s polyphenols—namely cinnamaldehyde and proanthocyanidins—can completely unbind recombinant tau filaments, therefore inhibiting the onset of the disease.
Cold water fatty fish such as wild-caught salmon, herring, and sardines have high amounts of omega-3s, namely DHA and EPA, which are essential fatty acids that have been shown to nourish the brain and prevent neurodegenerative diseases. The American Academy of Neurology found that eating just an extra gram of omega-3 per day (the equivalent of a half fillet of salmon per week) can lead to 20 to 30 percent lower levels of blood beta-amyloid, the protein associated with AD.
Another study in The Journal of Nutrition found that the DHA in fish oil may protect against Alzheimer’s in early intervention models. These preliminary results were especially seen in combination with natural antioxidants and curcumin, which leads us to our next brain-boosting food.
This golden Indian spice, most often found in curry dishes, boasts a powerful antioxidant called curcumin. While it’s no secret that it can lend your chicken satay an aromatic kick, it can also play a role in the prevention and treatment of Alzheimer’s, a study in the Annals of Indian Academy of Neurology. Researchers believe that turmeric’s anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, as well as its ability to delay neuron degeneration, can help improve patients’ memory and halt cognitive decline.
Whether you pair tomatoes with burrata or simmer them with basil and garlic into a scrumptious pasta sauce, tomatoes are potent fighters against neurological diseases. A study in the Jama Neurology journal found that higher intakes of certain foods—including tomatoes—can help lower the risk of developing AD. Digging into lots of leafy bowls with salad dressing could help keep you sharp. What’s more, German researchers suspect that vitamin C and beta-carotene (plant-based vitamin A)—two nutrients found in tomatoes—can help protect against dementia.
Cruciferous Veggies & Leafy Greens
Along with tomatoes, salad dressing, and poultry, the 2010 study also found that cruciferous veggies and dark, leafy greens have protective effects. Need another reason to add broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, and kale to your grocery list? A study in the journal Protein Cell found that prebiotics, or nondigestible fiber found in vegetables that help feed good bacteria, can help delay the process of neurodegeneration. Add more prebiotic and probiotic foods to your diet to reap the benefits.
Much like prebiotics (fiber-rich foods) can help nourish and grow the good gut bacteria, supplementing your diet with probiotics can help boost the good buggers in our microbiome. Instead of popping some pills, reach for the fermented foods lurking in your grocery store. Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus casei, Lactobacillus reuteri, Lactobacillus plantarum, Lactobacillus rhamnosus, and Bifidobacterium animalis are just some of the many strains the Protein Cell study lists as neuroprotective. You can find these probiotics in foods such as kombucha, kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, yogurt, and fermented dairy-free yogurt.
Next time you throw a stew together or season some protein, don’t forget to sprinkle on the cayenne and slice some jalapenos. Capsaicin, the compound responsible for tearing you up, is also a potent fighter against AD. An animal study in the journal PLoS One found that after just 10 days of eating a capsaicin-rich diet, there was a significant reduction of AD-associated protein sites in the mice with type 2 diabetes. How so? Researchers explain that 50–90 percent of capsaicin ingested with food can be absorbed by the gastrointestinal tract after which 5 percent of the capsaicin crosses the blood-brain barrier and enters brain tissue—a process that shows promising effects for Alzheimer’s prevention.
The same Jama Neurology study found that poultry can help keep AD at bay. Chicken is chock-full of B vitamins such as folate and B12, which have been linked to preventing the disease. Rather than boring yourself with the usual chicken breast dinner, try spicing up the protein with potent herbs and spices such as rosemary, red chili flakes, and lemon pepper or toss it with some avocado oil mayo, lemon, and black pepper for an easy and delicious take on chicken salad.