Power Foods for the Brain suggests that eating a plant-based diet and increasing how much you exercise and sleep might protect you from developing memory problems later in life.
Author and physician Neal Barnard designed and adopted this approach to living after observing what happened to his grandparents and parents. While growing up on a cattle farm in Fargo, N.D., Barnard says, his family consumed a diet high in animal fats: "We ate roast beef, potatoes and corn night after night."
Barnard visited his older family members during the last decade of their lives in nursing homes, "where their hearts were beating but their minds were gone." A report out this week from the Alzheimer’s Association finds that one in three older adults die with dementia. There is no cure or way to slow the progression.
Barnard’s TV special Protect Your Memory is airing this spring on PBS. The diet calls for cutting animal fats "completely," planning meals around the "new four food groups" (fruits, grains, legumes and vegetables) and keeping oils low. Eliminating saturated fats, trans fats, excess iron, copper and aluminum is key, he says.
His four food groups are loaded with nutrients and antioxidants that reduce brain shrinkage by cutting out free radicals, which destroy brain cells. The payoff can be "enormous," he says, adding that you can ward off vascular dementia, in which damaged blood vessels can no long carry enough oxygen to the brain, and stroke, also shown to cause certain kinds of dementia. The book has dozens of recipes that "make it easy to give up meat and fish," he says.
Barnard supports his ideas with studies, but be mindful of the kind of studies he cites, says Sanjay Asthana, director of the Alzheimer’s disease research center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Most are epidemiological studies looking at what people say they eat and how their health changes over a period of years. The gold standard for research is a randomized controlled trial, in which participants would be put on different diets and their health monitored.
"None of the epidemiology studies are definitive," Asthana says. "There is a general belief that diet and exercise do play a role in the process of the disease. But no, there is no good randomized control study to support the idea about diet. There are good controlled studies to show exercise can help, though."
Even vegetarians and vegans get Alzheimer’s, Asthana says.
Though they don’t know what causes late-onset Alzheimer’s, the most common form of the disease, researchers suspect accumulation of protein deposits in the brain — called amyloid plaques — are the likely culprit. By reducing the amount of plaque, you could theoretically moderate the course of the disease.
Degenerative changes in the brain start 10 to 20 years before symptoms appear. Alzheimer’s is the second-most-feared illness in the USA, after cancer, according to a 2011 survey by the MetLife Foundation.
"I don’t just want to delay the dementia," Barnard says. "I want to eliminate it."