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Strategies to assist with Alzheimer’s disease: What works and what doesn’t

Whether it’s the fear of watching a loved one struggle with everyday tasks or worrying about their inability to remember things, Australians know all too well how Alzheimer’s disease can rob people of their identity and cognitive function.

With no current cure, there are strategies you can implement to assist in the early stages of the disease. While the internet is flooded with plenty of advice, sorting fact from fiction can be tricky.

What is known is that with the right diet and combination of foods, the rate of decline in cognitive function can be reduced.

“There’s not many foods that give a normal person even better brain function. That would be in the midst of science fiction really,” Associate Professor Michael Woodward, Director of Aged Care Research and Memory Clinic at Austin Health, says. “In terms of preserving our brain health and reducing our risk of decline, the Mediterranean diet has been one of the best studied.”

A study published in the Translational Psychiatry Journal shows the Mediterranean diet – high in fruits, vegetables, legumes, omega-3 rich fish and cereals but low in dairy, meat, sugar and saturated fat – slows rate of Amyloid beta accumulation (associated with the development of Alzheimer’s) in the brain.

The World Health Organization (WHO) also says the Mediterranean diet may be recommended to adults with normal cognition and mild cognitive impairment as a way of reducing the risk of cognitive decline and dementia.

Foods high in omega-3 acids (walnuts, salmon, cod and tuna) can reduce blood levels of proteins that form lumps in the brain – a possible cause Alzheimer’s. Harvard Medical School also links B-vitamins found in wholegrains, eggs, legumes, seeds and citrus fruits and antioxidants found in leafy green vegetables, tomatoes, berries, onions and garlic with improved brain health.

“If you’ve got mild cognitive impairment, you really need to eat foods that crank up one of the metabolic pathways in the brain that makes new synapses [the part of the brain that connects nerve cells and allows the brain to carry out important functions like memory],” Woodward says.

While nutrients can be found in a variety of foods, WHO guidelines show there’s no support for the consumption of supplements and vitamins as a way to prevent dementia.

Also be sceptical of products claiming to be ‘miracle foods’ in Alzheimer’s prevention. Everything from celery to bone broth and coconut oil to ginkgo biloba has been linked to improved cognitive function, but there’s simply not enough scientific evidence to prove these benefits. Instead, focus on areas where there is valid research, such as the role physical activity plays in preventing Alzheimer’s.

Exercise improves blood flow in the brain and stimulates the replacement of cells damaged because of Alzheimer’s. Research published in the Neurology Journal found that regular exercise can improve memory and thinking and help people better manage problems with memory, language, thinking and judgement. It also recommended health care providers prescribe exercise over medication for patients with mild cognitive impairment.

“There’s no evidence that any particular exercise is better than others, but a balance of aerobic and resistance exercises is probably good,” Woodward says, adding moderate intensity exercise should be completed five times a week for at least 20 minutes each time.

This doesn’t mean you have to commit to slogging it out on the treadmill every day. Instead, exercise may include water aerobics, brisk walking dancing, bike riding and even gardening.

Challenging the brain with brain teasers, crosswords, Sudoku, learning an instrument or new language in addition to day-to-day activities can also delay the progression of the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. These activities improve brain function and help produce new synapses. Studies have shown that the more regularly people engaged with puzzles, the better they perform in attention, reasoning and memory tasks.

One study from the University of Exeter found participants who regularly engaged in word puzzles had short-term memory function more akin to someone eight years younger than them.

“It’s very important to keep our brain tuned just as it’s very important to keep our body tuned,” Woodward says.

Many choose to incorporate brain training with staying social – another proven way to prevent Alzheimer’s. Loneliness has been associated with cognitive decline, with a Cambridge University study showing seniors who are more social can reduce the rate of cognitive decline by as much as 70 per cent when compared with less social people.

“So, keep your body active, keep your mind active, eat a good diet, avoid toxins such as cigarette smoking and excess alcohol, avoid loneliness, keep socially interactive and control cardiovascular risk factors that are also damaging the brain,” Woodward says.

In cases where someone is already diagnosed with early Alzhiemer’s disease, medical nutrition drink Souvenaid® is available. When taken daily, Souvenaid® is clinically proven to nutritionally support memory loss in those living with early Alzheimer’s disease.1-3 It does this by providing a combination of important nutrients that support the growth of brain connections, known as synapses, in amounts which cannot be achieved through normal dietary intake.

These synapses help maintain the link between nerve cells in the brain, which are known to break down in those living with Alzheimer’s disease.

Do you know someone living with early Alzheimer’s disease? Do you eat many of the foods in the Mediterranean diet?

Content created in consultation with dementia expert Associate Professor Michael Woodward.

  1. Soininen H et al. Lancet Neurol 2017; 16: 965–975.
  2. Scheltens P et al. Alzheimers Dement 2010; 6: 1–10.e1.
  3. Scheltens P et al. J Alzheimers Dis 2012; 31:225–236.