Diet, Exercise and Alzheimer’s disease

The saying “healthy body, healthy mind” may seem like just another tired cliché, but according to researchers, regular exercise and good nutrition are two lifestyle choices that appear to help reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Two of those researchers will be devoting an entire plenary session to the topic at the upcoming Alzheimer’s Disease International Conference, March 26-29, 2011 in Toronto.

Dr. Carol Greenwood, a senior scientist at Baycrest in Toronto, one of the world’s top health sciences centres on aging, says a healthy diet probably does two things to the brain: it provides the right nutrients to keep the brain operating well and reduces the risk of developing chronic disorders like diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, which are risk factors for dementia.

Alzheimer's ConferenceSo what kind of foods should you eat if you want to avoid dementia? “Don’t believe in a magic bullet,” says Dr. Greenwood. “You know, blueberries today and pomegranates tomorrow. The data show that diets rich in a variety of foods such as fruits and vegetables, fish, whole grains, and fibre are protective of the brain. Diets high in fat, especially saturated fat, and low in healthy foods tend to be associated with increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease.”

In fact, one of Dr. Greenwood’s studies shows that diets high in saturated fats can actually speed up the aging process in the brain. When animals were given a diet that was 40 percent fat, the same as the average North American diet at the time, the animals became overweight and their cognitive abilities diminished.

Greenwood says exercise also seems to have a protective effect on the brain. Some research data indicate that people with a mild cognitive impairment who get regular exercise – even regular walking – show a reduced rate of decline.

Dr. Nikos Scarmeas of the Columbia University Medical Centre in New York has done specific research indicating that people with Alzheimer’s disease who tended to eat a Mediterranean-type diet of vegetables, legumes, cereals, fruit, and fish may live longer than those who eat a more traditional Western diet.

“There is some evidence that lifestyle behaviours, including what we eat and whether we are physically active, may affect our risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease,” says Dr. Scarmeas. “The evidence comes from observational studies, not from clinical trials, so it is not yet conclusive. Nevertheless, since good nutrition and exercise may have beneficial effects for other health conditions and diseases, it may be worth trying to practice them anyway.”

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