Exercise. Eat your vegetables. Get your rest. We’ve heard these health mantras all our lives, from parents, teachers, doctors, and even the media. There’s a reason why these messages persist— they speak the truth and are critical to helping us sustain healthy bodies and minds.
Now that you have Alzheimer’s, you may be too depressed, too lethargic, or too lackadaisical to care about your health. You may wonder why you should bother if your mind is slowly deteriorating anyway. Or you may lack the appetite or the energy to eat well and exercise. But in reality, taking care of your health now may be more important than ever as you begin your journey with Alzheimer’s.
Taking care of your overall health by eating well, doing regular exercise, getting your rest, and staying active will give you the physical and mental advantage you’ll need to cope with Alzheimer’s. Many of these simple stay-healthy strategies can lessen the symptoms of Alzheimer’s and prevent complications from other health problems. They can also help minimize your stress and frustration.
Current research suggests that some of these strategies may even help lower the risk for developing Alzheimer’s and keep the brain healthy in people who do not have Alzheimer’s. One study on beagles published in 2005 found that aging beagles were better able to learn new tricks if they ate plenty of fruits and vegetables, got regular exercise, and played with other dogs and interesting toys. Dogs that followed all three healthy strategies did better at learning difficult tasks than the dogs who received standard care. While dogs are certainly not people, they do experience the same age-related cognitive declines that people do, which suggests that these results may be relevant to us.
EATING FOR THE BRAIN
For many of us, few things are more pleasurable than devouring our favorite foods, be it a hot fudge sundae, a delectable Thanksgiving dinner, or a steamy bowl of noodle soup. Eating is one of life’s greatest sources of pleasure. It also provides our bodies with essential energy and powers our ability to move, think, and do all that we do.
Research in recent years has found that our diets have a profound impact on our brains. In reality, the word on healthy eating for the brain is nothing new. Many of the messages that we hear about preventing diabetes, staying slim, and avoiding cardiovascular disease are the same ones that apply to eating well for the brain. But these messages are always well worth repeating.
Go for the Color
Fruits and vegetables that are resplendent in their hues should be the part of any brain-healthy diet. These foods are rich in antioxidants that can prevent oxidative damage to brain cells caused by disease-promoting free radicals. Vegetables dense in anti-oxidants include kale, spinach, broccoli, brussel sprouts, red peppers, corn, eggplant, and onions. Fruits that have a lot of antioxidants include blueberries, strawberries, plums, blackberries, oranges, red grapes, cherries, raspberries, cranberries, and prunes.
Go Nuts With Your Diet
If you’ve been avoiding nuts for fear of fat, you should probably re-consider: Although nuts are higher in calories because of their fat content, they also are rich in nutrients that may help guard against Alzheimer’s. Nuts like almonds, pecans and walnuts contain anti-oxidants diat can protect brain cells from free radical damage.
And although nuts do contain fats, most of the fat is the healthy variety, monounsaturated fat, and can help lower cholesterol. Certain nuts may lower the risk for cancer and reduce blood pressure, too. Eating nuts can also help rein in your appetite, which in turn, can help with weight control.
Limit Your Fats and Cholesterol
It’s true that your brain cells are made of fat, but consuming too much fat in your diet poses health hazards. Too much saturated fat and cholesterol clogs the arteries and raises the risk for Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and stroke. Common sources of saturated fat include butter, meats, salad dressings, and whole milk dairy products. Food sources of cholesterol include egg yolks, meat, dairy products, and seafood.
Another villainous fat is trans fatty acid, a fat produced during the hydrogenation process that manufacturers use to help extend the shelf life of a food. Processed foods such as crackers, cookies, margarine, cakes, snack foods, fried foods, and fast foods are generally high in trans fatty acids. In general, foods high in fat promote weight gain because gram for gram, fats contain more calories than proteins and carbohydrates. To help lower your fat intake, stick with mono- and polyunsaturated fats, such as olive oil, and practice baking and grilling your foods instead of frying.
Maintain a Healthy Body Weight
At this time, more than two-thirds of the U.S. population is overweight or obese. The rise parallels an increase in the numbers of people with cardiovascular disease and diabetes, which are all problems associated with being overweight. And as the population continues to live longer, being overweight will also play a role in the growing numbers of people who develop Alzheimer’s.
Studies have found that people who keep their body weight at a healthy level are generally at lower risk for developing dementia. Lower body weight is also associated with lower cholesterol and blood pressure, two other factors that have been associated with a higher risk for dementia.
Maintaining your weight at a healthy level should continue even as you age. A study in 2003 found that women who were significantly overweight at age 70 were more likely to develop Alzheimer’s later on, when they were between the ages of 79 and 88. More specifically, the study defined being overweight as having a high Body Mass Index, a measure of weight in relation to height. In the study, which was done in Sweden, women who had a BMI above 29 were more likely to develop Alzheimer’s.
A healthy BMI is between 18.5 and 24.9. BMI is calculated by multiplying your weight in pounds by 703. Divide that number by your height in inches, squared (i.e., height x height). A woman who is 5 feet 4 inches, or 64 inches tall and weighs 170 pounds will have a BMI of about 29.
Among people who actually have Alzheimer’s or are on the brink of developing it, the problem may be just the opposite—they may experience weight loss. In fact, a 2005 study in the Archives of Neurology found that weight loss in elderly Japanese-American men may be associated with dementia. Although the weight loss may not contribute to dementia, it does suggest that weight loss could be a marker of impending dementia and that something is occurring in die parts of the brain that control appetite or metabolism.
If you have Alzheimer’s and are having trouble sustaining a healthy weight, talk to your physician or a nutritionist about strategies for eating more and increasing your calorie intake.