November 7th, 2012 at 10:00 am
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Balanced diet: brain food for elders

by Dorian Martin

My mother had a sweet tooth. Mom’s diet would regularly include sweet food, whether it was a doughnut for breakfast, fruit-flavored yogurt for lunch, a sugar-laden dressing on top of her dinner salad or a cookie for dessert. While she was able to stay slim for most of her life, this type of diet may actually have harmed her brain’s health.

I read a recent study showing that a diet high in sugar or carbohydrates may lead to a greater risk of mild cognitive impairment (MCI) in seniors. And that’s important because MCI often is a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease. In a blog post on the dangers of MCI, I wrote about how my mother was first evaluated for cognitive impairment, before the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s a year later.

Poor diet and mild cognitive impairment: the connection

New research funded by the National Institute on Aging and conducted by the Mayo Clinic explored the links between diet and seniors’ brain health. The study initially evaluated 1,230 people between the ages of 70 and 89 for cognitive function. Of this group, 940 participants were selected because they didn’t have signs of MCI. This subgroup recorded their daily dietary choices and underwent periodic re-evaluation of their cognitive functions.

Four years after the study began, 200 of these participants displayed mental issues beyond those associated with normal aging. These symptoms — which included problems with memory, language, thinking and judgment — were consistent with MCI.

Researchers compared the dietary records of participants who hadn’t show signs of MCI with those of the people who had cognitive issues; the analysis showed a difference in the amount of carbohydrates and sugar consumed. The participants who ate the most sugar during the study time frame were 1.5 times more likely to show signs of MCI. Furthermore, the individuals who ate the most carbohydrates were almost two times more likely to have MCI. On the flip side, participants who recorded eating more protein and fat than carbohydrates were less likely to have developed MCI.

Play down sugar and carbs, play up produce

Dr. Rosebud Roberts, an epidemiologist at the Mayo Clinic and the study’s lead author, recommends a diet with a healthy balance of protein, carbohydrates and fat in order to properly fuel the body.

“A high carbohydrate intake could be bad for you because carbohydrates impact your glucose and insulin metabolism,” said Dr. Roberts. “Sugar fuels the brain — so moderate intake is good. However, high levels of sugar may actually prevent the brain from using the sugar — similar to what we see with type 2 diabetes.”

This study reinforces the importance of good diet for seniors as well as those who care for them. We can choose to eat a healthy diet that limits sugary foods and “bad” or refined carbohydrates, such as foods made from white flour. Instead, we can enjoy fiber-rich “good” carbohydrates, as shown by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  1. Beans
  2. Fruits
  3. Vegetables
  4. Whole grains

For other ideas on how to protect seniors’ brain health, see blog posts on the importance of vegetables as well as diet and Alzheimer’s.

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