Most research estimates that while fewer than 1% of Alzheimer’s diagnoses are inherited, up to 60% of people diagnosed have ‘genetic risk’ factors that can mean they are more likely to develop the condition than people who don’t. Observational research suggests that the remaining 40% of diagnoses can be linked to 12 “modifiable risk factors” – with diet and exercise thought to play a big part in our likelihood of avoiding, or not avoiding, an Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
With 60-80% of dementia cases being caused by Alzheimer’s, Patrick Holford, Founder of the Food for the Brain Foundation, has shared his tips for doing what you can to “dementia-proof” your brain. The Food for the Brain charity focuses on helping people make simple, positive changes that “will give your brain and memory an upgrade and dementia-proof your diet and lifestyle in the future”.
Here are six of Patrick’s top tips for keeping your brain healthy.
#1 Reduce your sugar intake
“A 2022 US study reported that having a blood sugar level in the high end of the normal range, at age 35, increased a person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s later in life by almost 15%. So cutting back on sugar is the first of six simple changes that can cut your risk.
“Have more beans and fish, and less rice, pasta and potatoes. Eat eggs for breakfast or yoghurt, nuts, seeds and berries. Have oats instead of sugary cereals and oat cakes instead of bread. Our sugar expert Professor Robert Lustig, from the University of California, showed that sweet-toothed teenagers already have shrinking brains and worsening memory. It starts that young!”
#2 Supplement omega-3 oils
“The next simple step to cut your risk is to supplement omega-3 oils. Fat literally makes up half your brain cell membranes – the bit that does the ‘talking’. DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid) is an important omega-3 fatty acid and it is found in seafood and certain types of algae.
“A study of almost half a million people from the UK’s Bio Bank found that those taking fish oil supplements had a 7% lower risk of dementia. The same was true for those with higher blood pressure levels.
“Algal or seaweed-derived DHA is just as good as that found in fish, so this is essential for any vegan or vegetarian wishing to protect their brain. You need at least 200mg a day, but ideally double this amount. A very small amount of ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) in walnuts, chia and flax seeds, as well as colder climate leafy vegetables, does convert through to DHA so these foods are also important to eat on a daily basis. “
#3 B vitamins
“The first study that showed a reversal in the rate of brain shrinkage in people with pre-dementia gave a supplement of vitamin B6, B12 and folic acid. The study showed that the B vitamins halved the rate of brain shrinkage, cut the shrinkage in the Alzheimer’s areas of the brain by nine times.
“B vitamins are needed to help attach omega-3 into your brain. The next big breakthrough came when Professor David Smith’s group at Oxford University showed that the omega-3 fats don’t work nearly so well without B vitamins – and the B vitamins don’t work in people with low intake of omega-3. You need both.
“‘In those with sufficient omega-3 status B vitamins resulted in up to 73 per cent less brain shrinkage and slowed memory decline‘ says Professor Smith. One in three ended the trial with no clinical signs of dementia at all. Two other trials, in the Netherlands and Sweden, have confirmed that omega-3 and B vitamins are a dynamic duo, slowing down cognitive decline when both are sufficient.
“The three critical B vitamins are vitamin B6, B12 and folic acid or folate which is found in green foods (think foliage). We recommend that older people supplement at least 10mcg of vitamin B12 a day, but the study gave 500mcg. Why? Because many older people absorb B12 less well. It needs stomach acid so those on antacid drugs often end up lacking B12.
“The US National Institutes of Health researchers attribute 32% of risk to inactive lifestyle, 22% to smoking, 22% to lack of seafood or omega-3 and another 22% to a raised blood homocysteine level, which is a measure of B vitamin status.”
#4 Focus on fruit and vegetables
“Your brain spends a lot of energy thinking. This makes ‘exhaust fumes’, called oxidants, which age the brain. That’s why smoking is a big risk factor. Fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices and cacao are rich in brain-friendly antioxidants and polyphenols which improve circulation in your brain and help keep it young. So, while eating five servings of fruit and veg is good advice, having a handful of berries a day (blueberries being the best), and at least four servings of vegetables is better.
“Cacao in chocolate is also brain-friendly, but the sugar isn’t. Having a cocoa drink, made with cacao powder (without sugar) is the best of both worlds. Spices such as turmeric, cumin and chilli, cayenne or paprika are also great sources of polyphenols.”
#5 Active body, active mind
“In the online test at foodforthebrain.org , we assess your ‘active mind’, ‘active body’ as well as ‘sleep and calm’. Your brain needs exercise. Tommy Wood, Assistant Professor at the University of Washington,has shown that your muscle mass predicts brain volume.
“Exercise, especially resistance exercise, is important because it makes the brain do things that keep it healthy, such as growth and repair,” he says. “When they aren’t stimulated, the health of brain tissues deteriorates, with a knock-on effect on memory and thinking.”
“A study on trainee London taxi drivers learning ‘The Knowledge’—which involves memorising 26,000 streets—found that those who passed, compared to those that failed had literally built more brain tissue and connections.
“We benefit from the mental exercise involved in activities like solving puzzles or learning a new language. It’s especially good to learn things you’re bad at. “
“Just as you need a period of rest after exercise for muscles to recover, your brain needs sleep after a period of cognitive activity. The quantity and quality of sleep makes a big difference. Sleeping only five hours, or nine or more hours, doubles dementia risk. The optimal sleep duration is 7 hours and the optimal time for going to sleep is 10pm. ‘Owls’, who go to sleep late, have higher risk. Also, the least disrupted sleep, the better. Stress also takes its toll.”
A note from Tabby: As well as the Food for The Brain cognitive function test, you can try Alzheimer’s UK’s Brain Health Check In to see how you score. I’d also suggest a read through New Scientist’s recent article on the potential connections between lifestyle factors and dementia risk.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Patrick Holford is a Nutrition and Mental Health expert & Founder of the Institute for Optimum Nutrition, VitaminC4Covid, and the charitable Food for the Brain Foundation, where he directs their Alzheimer’s prevention project. Patrick reads hundreds of studies a year assimilating the latest health breakthroughs and turning them into practical advice to make it easy for everyone to live a healthy life. He is author of 46 health books translated into over 30 languages. www.patrickholford.com