Senior Nutrition: The Link Between Diet and Alzheimer's
There are simply some factors impacting Alzheimer’s and its severity that are completely out of our control, including those like age and genetics. There are others, however, over which we have a great deal of influence, and one of the most prominent is nutrition. Advances in science and research have suggested that a person’s diet can have a significant impact on their ability to think and remember as they age.
To help you understand the relationship between nutrition and Alzheimer’s or dementia, as well as provide some guidance for caregivers of loved ones experiencing this type of cognitive decline, we’re highlighting valuable insights to inform your approach.
The Science of Diet & Dementia Risk
The National Institute on Aging says that changes in the brain can begin unfolding years prior to any initial symptoms of Alzheimer's. “These early brain changes suggest a possible window of opportunity to prevent or delay dementia symptoms.” As scientists continue to study many possible ways to accomplish this, one such focus has been on lifestyle choices such as diet.
“It’s possible that eating a certain diet affects biological mechanisms, such as oxidative stress and inflammation, that underlie Alzheimer’s,” explains the NIH. “Or perhaps diet works indirectly by affecting other Alzheimer’s risk factors, such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease. A new avenue of research focuses on the relationship between gut microbes—tiny organisms in the digestive system—and aging-related processes that lead to Alzheimer’s.”
Evidence seems to suggest that one of the best types of diets to boost cognition and minimize the risk for Alzheimer’s, dementia or slow cognitive decline is the Meditteranean one—or its popular variation called the Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) diet.
Breaking Down the MIND Diet
The foundation of the MIND diet is a strong focus on plant-based foods that are linked to dementia prevention. If you’re interested in applying this type of diet to your daily nutrition plan or that of an aging loved one, here are the 10 healthy food groups as outlined by the NIH:
- Leafy green vegetables, at least 6 servings/week
- Other vegetables, at least 1 serving/day
- Berries, at least 2 servings/week
- Whole grains, at least 3 servings/day
- Fish, 1 serving/week
- Poultry, 2 servings/week
- Beans, 3 servings/week
- Nuts, 5 servings/week
- Wine, 1 glass/day*
- Olive oil
Note that this specific diet limits servings of red meat, sweets, cheese, butter/margarine and fast/fried food, and it also encourages a careful approach to alcohol intake.
Studies continue to bring about new science regarding the potential for certain ingredients to be brain superfoods. Overall, it’s important for seniors to make nutrition an essential component of their ongoing health routine and to consult with a physician before embarking on a new diet or food plan.
Caring for the Nutrition Needs of a Loved One
If you have the responsibility of caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s or cognitive decline, it can certainly be a challenge to ensure that their nutritional needs are met on a daily basis. Even so, this aspect of the care process is an especially integral one.
Seniors with this type of disability often take medications that could have an appetite-suppressing effect, or they might just be in a state of mind to forget to eat altogether. Either of these can lead to insufficient levels of caloric intake, which makes the process of supporting mental and physical health even more difficult and risky. Here are some valuable tips you can follow to help ensure you’re meeting their nutritional needs.
- Try to join them at mealtime as much as possible and share in the experience together. This can certainly be a tall order depending on your schedule of other needs and responsibilities, but injecting a social aspect into the eating process goes a long way in terms of ensuring they have a full meal. People who reside in senior living communities have the benefit of this social component for enjoying their meals with friends and staff.
- Consider setting up a delivery service of prepared (or easy-to-prepare), nutritious meals. Or think about the advantages of them living in a senior community where all of their meals are prepared according to their individual needs and they are monitored to ensure proper caloric intake. This added component of knowing that staff members are keeping a close eye on them can afford real peace of mind.
- Do your best to practice patience and ensure that those who interact with and care for your loved one do the same. It’s not always easy for seniors with Alzheimer’s or other forms of cognitive decline to consume their food at a normal pace or in a neat and tidy fashion. It will be especially important to be patient with these realities, and to stock up on items that facilitate the process, including cups with lids, napkins and types of foods that are easy (or less messy) to eat. These efforts and the patience you show will help your loved one maintain their dignity during the process and enjoy mealtime without an excessive amount of anxiety.
- Play close attention to the interplay of medications, food and physical health. Inquire about whether there are specific foods or beverages that can inhibit their prescription medicines from working appropriately, or whether any of their medications can impact appetite, bowel movements, hydration or other issues. Get expert medical direction on how to treat or manage these effects and ensure proper nutrition and health for your loved one.
- Keep consistent tabs on weight loss. To ensure proper caloric intake, WebMD suggests some of the following tactics:
- Offer smaller meals or snacks more often throughout the day, as opposed to large meals less often.
- Give them a daily multivitamin.
- Help them focus on starting with the more nutritious, higher-calorie foods on their plate before moving onto the other ones.
- Prepare things that are easy to eat, including bite-sized finger foods, like chicken nuggets, tuna sandwiches, orange slices and steamed broccoli.
- Ask their doctor about what foods are best for someone who has trouble chewing or swallowing.
- Use utensils or dishes that are easier to handle.
- Encourage exercise when possible, as engaging in physical activity can boost appetite.
Keep in mind that seniors with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia have specific needs that often can’t be met when they live at home. Memory care communities are designed specifically with those seniors’ needs in mind and can be an ideal opportunity for supporting your loved one with the care they require. As you think about critical elements like diet and nutrition, be sure to look into your options for a community geared specifically toward meeting these needs.
For additional tips on senior health and lifestyle issues, check out our blog. To understand more about the needs of seniors with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, download this free guide now. And if you’re interested in learning about United Methodist Homes senior living community, contact us today.
About Marissa Salvesen
My journey into the world of senior living began when I started working for United Methodist Homes in 2010. Starting as an Activities Director at one of our-winning assisted and independent living communities and then transitioning to Marketing and Promotions Manager for UMH, I now work as the Manager of Mission Development, fostering the Mission and Values of our organization. I love sharing stories about the many ways we build meaningful relationships and enrich the lives of those we serve, and am proud to be part of building UMH’s 140-year legacy of caring. Wondering what makes our communities such special places to live and work? Connect with me and find out!
Our Blog is a 2016 Platinum Generations Award Winner! The Generations Award is an annual international competition for excellence in senior marketing recognizing professionals who have communicated to the 50+ Mature Markets.