Here's what credible, peer-reviewed studies say about the possibility of foods to reverse dementia.
There are currently no cures or disease-modifying treatment for Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. Once a person is diagnosed, their symptoms — memory loss, personality changes, cognitive impairments — will worsen making everyday tasks more and more difficult to do. By the time these cognitive and memory symptoms appear, there is already substantial pathology and plaque buildup within the brain. Researchers are developing cutting-edge treatments to stop and possible even undo this plaque build-up. In the meantime, people can make lifestyle modifications — including exercise, addressing existing health issues like blood pressure and obesity, eating a healthy diet and staying away from certain foods — to protect their brain health, and stave off cognitive decline.
Credible studies do link consistently eating healthy foods with a reduced risk of dementia, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and the latter two are themselves risk factors for Alzheimer’s and related dementias. So there is a serious brain benefit when it comes to healthy foods.
But when it comes to actually turning back the clock on dementia progression in the brain, here’s what science says about foods to prevent dementia.
The bad news: There are no foods to reverse dementia. The good news: There are diets that can lower your risk.
Although there are some expensive protocols that claim an individualized diet will reverse Alzheimer’s, there isn’t any evidence that this works. While healthy food is packed with different vitamins and nutrients, this isn’t sufficient to change the course of a disease.
Joanna Hellmuth, a doctor at the University of California, San Francisco Memory and Aging Center criticized these procedures.
“Hope is important in the face of incurable diseases and intuitive interventions can be compelling,” Hellmuth said in a press release. “However, unsupported interventions are not medically, ethically or financially benign, particularly when other parties might stand to gain.”
How important is diet when it comes to dementia risk?
A recent study found that one-third of Alzheimer’s cases in the US are linked to eight risk factors — the three most important were midlife obesity, physical inactivity, and a lack of education. While addressing these risk factors could prevent additional cases of Alzheimer’s disease, not all are linked directly to diet. Though midlife obesity is a major risk-factor, there is little evidence that changes in diet can lead to permanent weight loss for most individuals. It isn’t clear how the quality of the diet factors into these calculations — and as we discuss below, the research trying to untangle these connections is complicated.
Eating healthier foods to prevent dementia
While many researchers will agree that a poor diet doesn’t provide your brain much help, it is much more difficult to study whether changing this diet will prevent cognitive decline or Alzheimer’s. Sure, replacing sugary snacks with vegetables and vitamin-rich foods is healthy but does it meaningfully impact brain health?
According to scientists from the Keck School of Medicine at USC, there isn’t any conclusive evidence yet that these healthy diets directly reduce the risk of developing dementia. Sticking to a Mediterranean style diet reduces the risk of developing Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia across several studies, albeit many of them did not follow individuals long enough to reach a conclusive answer. Moreover, a 2022 study looked at the Mediterranean style diet over the course of 20 years, but did not find a meaningful benefit of the diet alone.
These brain-healthy diets feature a lot of leafy greens, vegetables, legumes, fruits, nuts, seeds, whole grains and fish. Chicken and dairy products are included in moderation while red meat, soda, and junk food should be avoided. But it isn’t clear whether this effect is explained by the diet itself or a third factor like socioeconomic status which is linked to both brain health and diet.
Despite these limitations, many researchers believe a healthy diet plays an important role in keeping the aging brain healthy.