Updated: Nov 2
In recent news, another story has been published regarding the latest research on Alzheimer’s. In this instance a large-scale UK study focused on the role of diet and genetics in Alzheimer’s.
With Alzheimer’s sharply on the rise across the globe many people are justifiably concerned about their own chance of succumbing in later years. When looking at genetics a number of “APOe” genes are involved in Alzheimer’s. Deterministic genes (those that cause disease) are involved in less than 1% of cases. A secondary category of genes, risk genes, are also involved. We all carry different combinations of these genes. Whether these genes are expressed – activated to cause disease – is very much determined by lifestyle factors.
Using over a decade’s worth of data collected from 60,000 UK individuals, those identified that adhered to a strict Mediterranean diet had a 23% lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s, independent of their genetic risk. As with any large scale study it is not always possible to identify (with 100% precision) the key factor causing any single outcome. It is hard, say to adjust for all the benefits of long-term heath promoting exercise, but this study provides another solid piece of evidence relating to diet. Previous studies looking at dementia and the Mediterranean diet were limited to between typically 1000 to 6000 individuals so this study has added power.
Why is the Mediterranean diet beneficial for brain health? The strict form (traditional form) of the diet is high in unsaturated fats, fish, legumes, fruits, vegetables and herbs. It is relatively low in animal products and processed foods. The diet is rich in polyphenols, health promoting plant based chemical compounds. It is low in red meat and dairy. This anti-inflammatory combination of factors protects the brain from the protein build-ups that can lead to dementia and support a healthy weight. Unfortunately, if you are used to regularly drenching your ciabatta bread in olive oil and regularly tucking into a massive Florentine steak or cured meats, this is not the Mediterranean diet for healthy ageing. The Mediterranean diet is one of many traditional diets that can be enjoyed to promote health. Perhaps your taste buds are more inclined to Asian flavours? Look to traditional cuisines rich in plants, herbs and spices – avoid eating rich, often meat heavy, celebratory or festival foods on a daily basis.
So, if genetics are not the principal or driving factor behind Alzheimer’s, what are? Look to the root causes of chronic illness: diet, obesity, hypertension, high cholesterol, stress, depression, poor quality sleep, lack of a supportive community of friends or family. There are communities scattered around the world that have lifestyles in opposition to these factors, the Blue Zones. The result? Populations of cognitively sharp and active centenarians! And with the right lifestyle, this can be us too.
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Ballarini T, Melo van Lent D, Brunner J, Schröder A, Wolfsgruber S, Altenstein S, Brosseron F, Buerger K, Dechent P, Dobisch L, Duzel E, Ertl-Wagner B, Fliessbach K, Freiesleben SD, Frommann I, Glanz W, Hauser D, Haynes JD, Heneka MT, Janowitz D, Kilimann I, Laske C, Maier F, Metzger CD, Munk M, Perneczky R, Peters O, Priller J, Ramirez A, Rauchmann B, Roy N, Scheffler K, Schneider A, Spottke A, Spruth EJ, Teipel SJ, Vukovich R, Wiltfang J, Jessen F, Wagner M; DELCODE study group. Mediterranean Diet, Alzheimer Disease Biomarkers and Brain Atrophy in Old Age. Neurology. 2021 May 5;96(24):e2920–32. doi: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000012067. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 33952652; PMCID: PMC8253566.
Silva MVF, Loures CMG, Alves LCV, de Souza LC, Borges KBG, Carvalho MDG. Alzheimer's disease: risk factors and potentially protective measures. J Biomed Sci. 2019 May 9;26(1):33. doi: 10.1186/s12929-019-0524-y. PMID: 31072403; PMCID: PMC6507104.