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The Diet That Could Save Billions in Healthcare Costs—And Reduce the Risk of Alzheimer’s

By | June 11th, 2018

What we eat has a profound effect on our health—and our wallets, according to a new study. New research shows that tweaking the average American diet could result in not only a healthier nation, but also billons of dollars saved by reducing major health problems like heart disease, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and cancer.

Scientists looked at how switching to a Mediterranean-based diet—with an emphasis on olive oil, nuts, fresh produce and a moderate attitude toward fish and poultry—could lower chronic disease rates.

“We found that increasing adherence to healthy dietary patterns by even 20 percent at a population level has the potential to save more than $20 billion in both direct and indirect costs associated with 10 major health outcomes,” said lead study author Dr. Carolyn Scrafford, senior managing scientist at Exponent, a scientific consulting firm. “That’s a significant saving from what we believe is a realistic shift in diet quality.”

Researchers used a measure called the Healthy Eating Index (HEI) and the Mediterranean-style diet score (MED). Right now, the average U.S. adult scores a 3.5 out of 9 on the MED score. But if that increased by 20 percent, the analysis shows the U.S. could save about $21-26 billion. If people increased adherence to 80 percent, savings could reach $112-135 billion.

Alzheimer’s is just one of the diseases researchers looked at, but the others—heart disease, diabetes and cancer among them—have all been shown to increase the risk of Alzheimer’s. Diabetes, for example, doubles the chances of Alzheimer’s. Heart attack survivors have a 35 percent increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Having a stroke doubles or triples the chances of dementia.

Past research shows that a Mediterranean-style diet—dubbed the MIND diet in one study—could lower the risk of Alzheimer’s by 53 percent.

“Our results suggest that it’s worthwhile to educate Americans on these dietary patterns and their components, to encourage them to make little changes to improve their diet quality,” said Scrafford.

So, what does it look like to switch to a Mediterranean diet? According to nutrition experts, it means swapping red meat for fish and incorporating healthy fats like olive oil and avocado into your meals daily, along with fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains like barley or farro instead of white bread and rice.

This study was presented at Nutrition 2018.

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