For a long time, Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia were thought of as a normal part of aging. While becoming more forgetful as you get older is typical, scientists know now that the deterioration that comes with Alzheimer’s, which eventually causes neuron death that leads to a person forgetting how to eat, walk and even swallow, is not an inevitable outcome of aging—it’s a disease, and an epidemic at that.
Dr. Lisa Mosconi, PhD, Associate Director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medical College (WCMC)/NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, says that Alzheimer’s is largely seen as either a part of aging, or a bad hand of genetics. But actually, she writes in an editorial for Quartz, only one percent of Alzheimer’s can be chalked up to genetic mutations. Mosconi says that Alzheimer’s could largely be prevented by lifestyle changes, and points to a new study on cancer and processed foods as evidence.
The study shows that cancer rates go up as the rates of processed food intake go up. A 10 percent increase in “ultra-processed” food (like packaged snacks, sodas and cold cuts) was associated with a 12 percent increase in cancer. Like Alzheimer’s, cancer was originally thought of as a disease primarily based in genetics.
So what exactly is unprocessed food? In short, unprocessed food includes fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry, fish and eggs that haven’t been altered—meaning they haven’t been cooked, dried or prepared in any way. That means that processed foods can sometimes look like natural foods in disguise.
“An apple straight from the tree is wholly unprocessed. Dry the apple, and store it away with common preservatives like sulphur dioxide, and it becomes a processed food,” writes Mosconi.
This study caught the attention of Mosconi’s research group. “The findings line up so closely with research in the field, including our own work, linking diet and risk of Alzheimer’s—and underscore how important lifestyle changes can be to delaying or even avoiding the onset of the disease.”
Numerous studies on the effect of diet on Alzheimer’s point to nutrition (or lack thereof) as a heavily influential factor in the development of dementia. Studies on trans-fat consumption show that as little as two grams per day can double the risk of dementia. On the other side of nutrition, high consumption of leafy greens made brains the equivalent of 11 years younger.
Right now, scientists are conducting research on the MIND Diet, a Mediterranean-based diet high in vegetables, healthy fats and fish, and have found that strictly adhering to such a diet can slash dementia risk by more than 50 percent.
Still, though, health officials in England recently said that there is not enough evidence that diet affects Alzheimer’s risk. That doesn’t mean that there is no link whatsoever, but it does mean that it is a difficult area to study scientifically. But, as Mosconi points out, it’s an important one. “The Alzheimer’s population of 2050 will either start to develop, or not, right around now,” she writes.
Read the full write-up here.