An anti-inflammatory diet now can protect your brain from dementia later
"Currently, inflammation is considered a major factor in the development of depression, dementia, and other brain disorders," says Dr Drew Ramsey.
Every year you can expect a slew of new “guaranteed diet” books for weight loss, brain health, aging, spiritual well-being, and general lifestyle. There’s the vegan one, the raw meat one, the low-fat one, the high-fat one, the juice-from-fruits-picked-during-a-full-moon one, the blood type one, and the one based on your latest tarot card reading. It becomes quite confusing. Authors confuse a little information with knowledge, then try to translate that into sales.
There are too many factors to factor in to a proper diet. Serious nutritionists recognize that good health requires a nuanced understanding of individual genetics, environment, and gut microbiome. Then there’s the speed you consume your food, the types of sugar you eat—in juice or whole fruit, in which the fiber plays a critical role—then the types of fat you digest, and stress levels.
Let’s pause on that last one for a moment, as stress is rampant. An overtaxed body is an inflamed body. A recent study investigating the role of inflammation in regards to brain health and dementia is worth considering. It’s not the only factor in a good diet, but it is a crucial one.
A team at Columbia University Medical Center, led by neuropsychologist and epidemiologist Yian Gu, studied the cognitive performance of 330 elderly adults to see if the Mediterranean diet—one of the longer-lasting and most-studied diets in the world—could lower their risk of diseases of dementia, including Alzheimer’s. All adults involved did not suffer from dementia during the course of the study.
Gu points out numerous studies have shown that this diet, which is fish- and poultry-heavy with an emphasis on whole grains, fruits, olive oil, vegetables, and moderate alcohol intake, offers protection against the development of Alzheimer’s. Gu wanted to know if this is due to a decrease in inflammatory biomarkers in the subject’s brain.
The result was yes, decreased inflammatory markers were prevalent in those who ate this diet. They also had better visuospatial cognition, thanks to nutrients such as vitamins B1, B2, B5, B6, D, and E, as well as higher intake of omega 3-fatty acids, calcium, and folate. Gu notes:
This study suggests that certain nutrients may contribute to the previously observed health benefits of some foods, and anti-inflammation might be one of the mechanisms. We hope to confirm these results in larger studies and with a wider range of inflammatory markers.
To understand why lower inflammation helps overall health and aging I emailed Drew Ramsey, also at Columbia University. The psychiatrist, Big Think expert, and author of numerous books, including Eat Complete, told me:
Inflammation is how our body deals with stress and injury. Today, most people eat a diet and have a lifestyle that promotes incredible stress via excess sugars, eating the wrong fats, and losing the sense of joy that food should give us. Currently, inflammation is considered a major factor in the development of depression, dementia, and other brain disorders. People should worry about inflammation because it is contributing to the degradation of their health.
This is especially important as we age. As Gu and team write in the study, Alzheimer’s is the leading cause of dementia worldwide, and is the most common neurodegenerative disorder. While medical interventions help us live longer that does not always translate to healthier. We can overcome cancer and heart surgery and survive longer with AIDS and type 2 diabetes, but quality of life is greatly compromised when suffering from dementia. The strain on family and friends can be overwhelming.
Which is why it’s important to start interventions earlier in life. Most of what is sold in packages is not food, but a combination of food-like substances preserved by unpronounceable chemistry. Sugars and unhealthy fats hide, disguised by numerous names, slowing transforming our microbiome in ways that degrade health. And it’s not only visceral fat, body mass index, and heart disease we need to worry about. Without healthy cognition the very concept of “I” disintegrates. The so-called golden years are effectively meaningless if you can’t remember them.
While studies like Gu’s remind us of the bigger picture, Ramsey suggests taking it meal by meal. When I ask him how people can implement changes in their diets now, he expresses skepticism about considering the long game. Change starts at the dinner table tonight, he says.
People don't get motivated by “long term benefits” or “risk reduction.” We have the most success in our clinic when we encourage patients to make better food choices at their next meal. We find that there are very rapid effects when people switch from modern Western food to nutrient dense whole foods (which are also brain food). Sure, eating more avocados can decrease dementia risk, but encouraging patients to eat more avocado toast and guacamole is more compelling when it comes to behavioral change.
Gu knows that one study does not change a discourse. But the combination of better understanding the microbiome and the effects of decreasing inflammation is too prevalent to deny. The Mediterranean diet offers a simple lesson applicable globally, to eat seasonal fresh foods and enjoy moderate amounts of alcohol. Such an approach worked for our species for millions of years until the advent of refrigeration and industrial processing. And we know it works now. We just have to implement it, be it through the recognition of cognitively strong aging or, as Ramsey suggests, hitting the produce aisle for dinner tonight.
Derek is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.
The way that you think about stress can actually transform the effect that it has on you – and others.
- Stress is contagious, and the higher up in an organization you are the more your stress will be noticed and felt by others.
- Kelly McGonigal teaches "Reset your mindset to reduce stress" for Big Think Edge.
- Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Three scientists publish paper proving that not Venus but Mercury is the closest planet to Earth
- Earth is the third planet from the Sun, so our closest neighbour must be planet two of four, right?
- Wrong! Neither Venus nor Mars is the right answer.
- Three scientists ran the numbers. In this YouTube video, one of them explains why our nearest neighbour is... Mercury!
The blood of horseshoe crabs is harvested on a massive scale in order to retrieve a cell critical to medical research. However, recent innovations might make this practice obsolete.
- Horseshoe crabs' blue blood is so valuable that a quart of it can be sold for $15,000.
- This is because it contains a molecule that is crucial to the medical research community.
- Today, however, new innovations have resulted in a synthetic substitute that may end the practice of farming horseshoe crabs for their blood.
The distance between the American dream and reality is expressed best through literature.
- Literature expands our ability to feel empathy and inspires compassion.
- These ten novels tackle some facet of the American experience.
- The list includes a fictional retelling of the first Native American to graduate from Harvard and hiding out in inner city Newark.
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by The Big Think, Inc. All rights reserved.