Updated: Oct 20
"Can Alzheimer's disease be prevented?" While definitive answers are still elusive, there is promising research underway. Today, I will share with you evidence suggesting that we can take simple steps to delay and potentially keep Alzheimer's disease and other chronic illnesses at bay. One crucial aspect that emerges from scientific studies is the profound impact of our diet and the food we consume over time. As the famous saying goes, "We are what we eat."
The Role of Diet in Human Health
Diet plays a fundamental role in our well-being, starting from the earliest stages of life and continuing throughout each phase of our existence. A mother's diet during pregnancy significantly influences the healthy development of her baby. The dietary intake of children and adolescents is crucial for their growth and well-being. Furthermore, the health of adults and aging individuals is profoundly affected by their dietary habits. Nowadays, we recognize diet as a significant factor directly involved in the resilience to or the risk of developing several chronic diseases.
Unveiling the Mediterranean Diet
One dietary approach that has garnered considerable attention is the Mediterranean diet. Named after the geographical region surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, which includes countries like Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Tunisia, this diet has been followed for centuries. It predominantly consists of unprocessed plant-based foods typically found in this region: fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, legumes, extra virgin olive oil, lean proteins, and fish.
The Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet
Numerous large-scale studies have consistently shown that individuals who adhere to the Mediterranean diet tend to live longer and have a lower incidence of major chronic diseases, including cardiovascular diseases and Alzheimer's disease.
Cardiovascular diseases, encompassing conditions such as stroke, myocardial infarction, and atherosclerosis, currently account for approximately 19 million deaths worldwide. Fortunately, the Mediterranean dietary regime has been linked to significant cardiovascular protection. Several studies have demonstrated that individuals following a Mediterranean diet have a lower risk of developing cardiovascular diseases compared to those who follow a Western diet, characterized by red meat, organ meat, butter, fried and processed foods, and high-sugar items.
Cognitive Health and Alzheimer's Disease
Epidemiological studies have also shed light on specific dietary patterns associated with the risk of cognitive impairment and the onset of Alzheimer's dementia. While the Mediterranean diet is associated with a slower decline in cognitive abilities, the Western diet has been found to adversely affect memory and cognition.
The Role of Consistency
In reality, people often try to incorporate Mediterranean diet components such as fish, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains more frequently into their meals. However, they may also intermittently or simultaneously consume foods characteristic of a Western diet, including refined grains, processed foods, fried chicken/fish, or sweet treats during other meals throughout the week. In such cases, can the Mediterranean diet alone mitigate the negative effects of the Western diet on memory?
The Crucial Answer
Regrettably, the answer is "no." A recent study has shown that the memory benefits associated with following the Mediterranean diet are significantly diminished when individuals consume foods typical of a Western diet.
In conclusion, adopting a Mediterranean diet is a lifestyle change that yields evident benefits, particularly for individuals who adhere to it over an extended period. It is never too late to start implementing this specific dietary and lifestyle approach. Importantly, the Mediterranean diet extends beyond reducing the risk of cardiovascular diseases and Alzheimer's disease. It has also been shown to positively influence gut health and promote overall healthy aging.
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Domenico Praticò, MD, is the Scott Richards North Star Charitable Foundation Chair for Alzheimer’s Research, Professor and Director of the Alzheimer’s Center at Temple, and Professor of Pharmacology at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University