Though it seems to afflict without rhyme or reason, there are indeed reasons why dementia strikes, and Dr. Neal Barnard is leading the charge to make those reasons known.
Hallelujah Acres interviewed Dr. Barnard recently to get his thoughts on the matter. Here is what he had to say…
Hallelujah Acres: Can you explain the connection between nutrition and dementia?
Dr. Barnard: In 1993 The Chicago Health and Aging project found that the more saturated fat people ate, the higher their risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Now, saturated fat is the so-called “bad” fat that is found especially in animal products: bacon, pork chops, beef, chicken, and it’s especially high in cheese.
It appears that saturated fat dramatically increases the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Trans fats, the partially hydrogenated oils, seem to have the same sort of effect. There are other contributors to dementia, but fat seems to be number one.
When people are eating foods that have this bad fat in them, their bodies make more cholesterol. We’ve known for a long period of time that if you’re eating a lot of butter and lard, your cholesterol level will go up and you’ll have a heart attack. What we didn’t realize is that it can also block the arteries that supply the brain; so then you have less oxygen getting to the brain and fewer nutrients going to the brain. But the second thing is that it turns out that when people eat more of the bad fats and when they have a high cholesterol level, their brains show the formation of beta-amyloid plaque; like the plaque in your arteries, but it’s microscopic plaque in your brain. They are the hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease.
So, the more bad fat you eat and the higher your cholesterol goes, the more of these microscopic plaques you have in your brain, and they seem to be what damages the brain in Alzheimer’s disease.
The good news that at some point in the middle of life you have decided to set aside the bacon and the hot dogs and the foods that are high in these bad fats, your likelihood of Alzheimer’s disease plummets if the research findings hold true and we believe they will.
Hallelujah Acres: Metals have long been feared as causing Alzheimer’s. How do substances like aluminum and mercury play into the equation?
Dr. Barnard: When we look into these plaques of the brain of someone who died with Alzheimer’s disease, we find the metals are in the plaque. The high fat diet seems to cause the plaque to form and the metals are part of the plaque. Aluminum is only one metal of concern, however. Iron and copper are also found in this plaque. I stress those because they both tend to oxidize.
The iron that is in the food that you eat can oxidize. You also need tiny amounts of copper in your diet to help create enzymes; but copper in your body corrodes just as a penny does, creating free radicals. Individuals who have a lot of iron and copper in their diets are more likely to develop dementia. The iron and the copper in your body tend to oxidize, and as they oxidize they create free radicals that are molecules that can damage your tissues and we believe that part of that damage is done in the brain.
Aluminum is controversial, but there is absolutely no requirement for aluminum in the body whatsoever, it is in the plaques of the brains of people who have Alzheimer’s disease. In parts of the world where there is more aluminum in the drinking water, there is more Alzheimer’s disease. So to be cautious, it makes sense to minimize the amount of aluminum you’re being exposed to.
Hallelujah Acres: Let’s go back to fats for a minute. You mentioned saturated fats; when we’re talking about that, are we lumping in virgin coconut oil?
Dr. Barnard: It might; we don’t really know. Coconut oil is something that is high in saturated fat, but has been recently promoted by a number of people for health benefits. Whether or not those hold true, I don’t know. I am personally having trouble separating out what is scientifically true from commercial marketing. So, I don’t really know whether it is good yet or not.
Hallelujah Acres: Some people believe that hormone replacement therapy (HRT) can be used to offset the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. What do you say about that?
Dr. Barnard: When you look at studies of women who have taken hormone replacement therapy, generally speaking they do have less dementia than other women. That led some people to mistakenly believe that it was cause and effect. Researchers decided to put this to the test by randomizing women into two groups; one got a placebo and the other group got the hormones. It turned out that women who got the hormones had more dementia compared to the women who did not. So, it turns out to be the opposite; hormone replacement therapy, if anything, is a problem rather than a solution. The reason that they seemed to have less dementia because health conscious women were going out and seeking HRT, but it was not a cause and effect. Women have menopause for a reason, it’s a good thing, and we shouldn’t be fooling around with it.
Hallelujah Acres: How do things like sleep, exercise and mental activity play into Alzheimer’s risk?
Dr. Barnard: Exercise gets your heart pumping and a faster pulse means you can get more oxygen and nutrients to the brain and more waste out. Researchers have clearly shown that the more your exercise, not only to get benefits for your heart and waistline, you get benefits to the brain as well. You can actually reverse the age-related shrinking of parts of the brain involved in memory.
Rest and sleep helps our brain to integrate memories more effectively. The first part of the night, during what is called slow wave sleep, is when the brain integrates words and facts. The second part of the night, when you have more rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and are dreaming, is when the brain integrates emotions and physical skills like riding a bike. If you’re not getting adequate sleep, you may have a lot of education experiences during the day and would like to remember, but if you’re not sleeping, you can’t integrate them and can’t remember them. That’s why people who stay up all night have trouble with their memory and emotional control. These are things they wouldn’t have if they got better sleep.
Hallelujah Acres: I understand that your family has a personal connection to Alzheimer’s disease. Can you elaborate on that?
Dr. Barnard: My mother’s side of the family, my mother’s father was a physician in a small town and became demented in his early 60s and died in his mid 60s. His wife lived much longer but she became demented, too. For many years of her life, she did not know any of her family members at all. On my father’s side, both of his parents both suffered with severe dementia, and my father himself had dementia starting in his 70s. He began to be forgetful and even began to see that things were not right. He said to me that he felt he was having signs of dementia. Then, his emotions became harder to control, which is a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease as well. His personality changed and he actually became quite mute and he died in February after having quite severe dementia that dramatically disrupted his relationship with his family.
Hallelujah Acres: How can someone help to avoid Alzheimer’s in their family?
Dr. Barnard: To ensure that you are doing all that you can to avoid dementia, keep a checklist to ask yourself whether you have bad fats in your diet; if you do, you are at higher risk for Alzheimer’s. But if you change that, if you start avoiding them, you’ll do better. My father grew up on a cattle ranch and ate abysmal foods for most of his life. We had a lot of red meat (and thus iron) when we were growing up. One of the biggest sources of excess copper is multivitamins, strangely enough; so my dad had a lot of copper in his diet. My dad used to drink Maalox, the antacid, but many people don’t know that the brand name is an acronym of sorts, meaning magnesium and aluminum hydroxide. So we was ingesting a lot of aluminum. He didn’t eat a lot of vegetables, so missed healthy micronutrients. My father was physically sedentary; he didn’t exercise very much. He did get a lot of mental stimulation because he was a doctor; he read a lot. While mental stimulation is important to keeping the brain healthy, it alone cannot undo the effects of a bad diet when it comes to avoiding dementia.
Hallelujah Acres: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Dr. Barnard: I have book coming out in March called Power Foods For The Brain. It’s coming out in March 2013. I also have a PBS program called Protect Your Memory coming out around the same time.
People already know that food plays a role with your weight, your heart, diabetes avoidance, good blood pressure. But almost nobody knows that foods can have a dramatically powerful effect on the brain. There is nothing more than the connections with your loved ones. If your heart is beating but your brain cells have been destroyed and you lose your connection with your children, grandchildren, and everyone else around you, you have lost everything and they have lost you. My hope is that we can change that and it starts with information that, right now, people don’t have but I think we can change that. Frankly, that’s what Hallelujah Acres has been doing for a long time. You’ve been helping people to understand that food can matter and that your dietary choices affect your relationship with your loved ones.
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