Thursday, November 4, 2010

Alzheimer's Disease and Diet

People with Alzheimer’s should eat well-balanced, nutrient-rich meals, but a special diet is usually not necessary. However, even healthy older people experience changes in eating habits as they age: Food may not smell or taste the same; it may become more difficult to chew and digest food, and our cells may not be able to utilize the energy from food as efficiently. These problems may be more pronounced in people with Alzheimer’s and may be compounded by other challenges posed by the disease. In addition, Alzheimer’s may cause appetite control systems in the brain to malfunction as nerve cells in those areas deteriorate, resulting in extreme eating behaviors (overeating or not eating at all).


In early stages of the disease, people with Alzheimer’s may have difficulty preparing meals. They may forget they have food in the oven or cook something and forget to eat it. Step-by-step written or verbal instructions clearly delineating what to do to prepare and eat meals may be beneficial in such cases.

Food preparation problems may progress to difficulty eating. Nerve cell death eventually steals the ability to recognize thirst or hunger. At the same time, depth perception may be compromised due to changes in the visual and “mapping” areas of the brain, making the process of eating more frustrating. The person may no longer know how to use a knife or fork and may lose interest in food altogether.

That may become very difficult and stressful as there will come a time when a sufferer forgets to eat, forgets that they have already eaten and basically forgets how to eat. At this point it will be the caregiver who takes over the role of ensuring that the person gets a good balance of the right food.

Sometimes a patient’s medication can put them off their food. Or because of the degenerative nature of the illness they may not be physically able to use a knife and fork or even swallow. Despite all these hurdles the caregiver must try to ensure that they have a balanced diet full of fruit, vegetables, dairy products and proteins. This will help to keep the sufferer’s body as healthy as possible at a time when their brain function is deteriorating.

Oily fish is particularly good as it’s rich in Omega 3 oils which are known to help concentration and maintain a healthy heart and nervous system.

It’s a good idea to prepare finger food (with soft, healthy fillings such as egg or tuna) as the illness progresses. These are easier for the sufferer to handle and chew, giving them some control and independence over what they are doing. It also makes life easier for sufferers who get restless and agitated if they have to sit at a table for any length of time to eat a meal.

Providing healthy snacks such as fruit or raw vegetables is ideal if a person has a tendency to overeat because they have forgotten they’ve already had a meal.

According to several studies, eating plenty of darkly colored fruits and vegetables may slow brain aging. Of interest was a 1999 study on animals, in which extracts taken from blueberries and strawberries actually reversed age-related decline in brain function. Blueberries were the most effective. Dark-colored fruits and vegetables are recommended in any case for good health.

People with dementia don’t realize that they may be thirsty. It’s important that fluid levels are kept up to avoid dehydration (which can make the mind even more sluggish) and constipation. For the latter, the person’s diet should also contain healthy amounts of fiber such as whole meal bread or wholegrain cereals.

The traditional approach claims that avoiding alcohol is important as not only does it dehydrate but it can also cause a worsening of the confusion and memory loss symptoms. However, several studies have suggested that moderate intake of alcohol (one or two drinks a day) of any kind may protect the aging brain, possibly by releasing acetylcholine, the chemical in the brain that is deficient in Alzheimer's disease. Although most studies have focused on wine, a 2001 Dutch study found that light to moderate alcohol intake, regardless of alcohol type, helped protect against dementia, including Alzheimer's. Not all studies have been positive. One, for example, suggested that wine may have some protective properties for noncarriers of ApoE4 but actually increase the risk for carriers of the gene. In any case, heavy alcohol consumption offers no protection and is dangerous.

The acceptability of low amount of alcohol in Alzheimer’s patient diet was supported by the recent study, getting results on the positive influence of the Mediterranean diet in comparison with more traditional Western diet, higher in saturated fat and meats and lower in fruits and vegetables. The Mediterranean diet includes a high intake of vegetables, legumes, fruits, cereals, fish, monounsaturated fatty acids; a low intake of saturated fatty acids, dairy products, meat and poultry; and a mild to moderate amount of alcohol.


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