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Can the foods I eat affect my chances of getting Alzheimer’s disease?

–Helen, 62, New York


Nutrition and Brain Aging

Good nutrition is important not only for maintaining overall good physical health but may also help prevent the development and progression of dementia. Studies suggest that eating “brain healthy” foods including fruits, vegetables, and fish may improve cognition and reduce the risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and other age-related diseases.

With aging, the body accumulates damage to DNA and proteins due to oxidative stress (damage caused by a form of oxygen) and inflammation. As this damage accumulates in the brain, brain cells die or lose their ability to function properly, which contributes to brain aging and degenerative diseases including dementia. Furthermore, the aging brain becomes more sensitive to oxidative and inflammatory stressors, which accelerates the aging process.
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Research suggests that brain aging, learning, and memory can be modified by diet. Inadequate intake of vitamins and minerals including magnesium, zinc, iron, vitamin D, calcium, selenium, omega-3 fatty acid, folate, and vitamins B6 and B12 have been associated with DNA damage and cellular aging. On the other hand, diets high in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, fish, and olive oil, such as the Mediterranean diet, has been associated with slower brain degeneration and lower AD risk.

Importance of Antioxidants

Although the exact mechanism of “brain healthy” foods remains unclear, studies suggest that foods rich in antioxidants (substances that counteract the damaging effects of oxidation), folate, vitamins B6 and B12, and unsaturated fatty acids may lower the risk of AD. A category of compounds called polyphenols, the most abundant antioxidants in the diet, appears to counter brain aging and degenerative diseases such as heart disease and cancers. Studies have shown that polyphenols improve cognition, learning and memory in animals as well as humans.

Foods high in polyphenols include certain fruits, vegetables, nuts, cereals, chocolate, tea, coffee, and red wine. Blueberries and blueberry extracts are especially rich in polyphenols. Studies suggest that daily consumption of fruits, vegetables, fish, or omega-3 rich oils decreases the risk of AD and other dementias. Additionally taking antioxidant supplements may help slow the process of brain aging. A combination of antioxidant supplements, such as vitamins E and C, appears to be more effective than taking a single supplement. The most convincing evidence suggests that a variety of antioxidants (in the form of a nutritious diet and supplementation) combined with behavioral enrichment (involving physical, social, and cognitive components) are effective in improving cognition and reducing brain degeneration.

Importance of Low Calorie Diet and Exercise

Another approach for slowing the process of brain aging may be following a low calorie diet. Recent work suggests that exercise and caloric restriction improve cognition and may prevent the development of dementia. Clinical trials of food restriction in healthy adults show improvements in body weight, blood glucose, cholesterol, and blood pressure, which are risk factors for cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Diets high in calories or certain fats and being overweight are associated with increased risk for dementia, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers. Based on current research, the best approach for delaying age-related diseases including dementia is to maintain a lean, healthy body weight and to follow a diet low in calories and saturated fat but high in fruits, vegetables, wholegrain cereals, and other sources of antioxidants. (Before restricting caloric intake, a physician should be consulted to see if it is safe for that person.)

As people age, their caloric needs typically decrease but nutritional needs remain high. For older adults, eating nutrient-dense, well-balanced meals containing a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grain foods, fish, lean meats, poultry, and low-fat dairy products low in cholesterol and saturated and trans fats promotes overall good health. Healthful snacking is also an important source of nutrition for older adults. Foods that are high in fat, sugar, and salt such as processed foods and ice cream should be avoided. Foods with high fiber content such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans are also important for preventing constipation. Because vitamin and mineral deficiencies are common among the elderly, vitamin supplements that include calcium, folic acid, vitamins D, B12, B6, C and E should be considered and discussed with a physician.

It is never too late to adopt a healthful lifestyle to improve the quality and quantity of life. Good nutrition can not only add years to life, but also life to those years by slowing age-related degeneration including AD and other dementias.

Possible Dietary Preventers of Alzheimer’s Disease

  • Fruits
    • Particularly blueberries, strawberries, cranberries, black currants, blackberries, concord grapes, plums
  • Vegetables
    • Particularly spinach
  • Nuts
    • Particularly walnuts
  • Fish, fish oils, olive oil, flax oil (rich in omega-3 fatty acid)
  • Whole grain cereals
  • Foods rich in vitamins E, C
  • Vitamin supplements containing folate, vitamins E, C, B complex
  • Curcumin
  • Melatonin
  • Tea
  • Coffee
  • Chocolate
  • Red wine (in modest, but not excessive, amounts)

A modified food pyramid for older adults is available at:

Personalize the food pyramid for yourself or your loved ones at:

Dr. Mindy Kim-Miller is a trained medical physician who provides useful, but general answers to questions provided by online visitors. While Dr. Mindy can not provide specific medical advice or services, we hope you find her responses useful in your personal education. All information is provided for informational and educational purposes only and is not meant to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you suspect you have an illness or disease, or a health related condition of any kind, seek professional medical care with an appropriate health care professional immediately. Do not postpone or delay seeking treatment or disregard professional advice based upon the general answers provided by Dr. Mindy. Dr. Mindy’s advice is not intended to substitute for a visit to your personal physician or other qualified health provider. Any specific medical concerns or questions you may have should be directed to your personal physician or other qualified health provider.


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