Q: Alzheimer's disease runs in my family. Am I at risk no matter what I do?
A: To start, let's be clear about what the disease is. In its early stages, Alzheimer's is indistinguishable from the little memory lapses all of us experience. But as time passes, memory fails more and more, and behavior becomes unruly and sometimes even aggressive. Within the brain, cells are dying. Clusters of abnormal proteins, known as plaques and tangles, begin to form.
Before diagnosing Alzheimer's, doctors check for other causes of memory impairment: infection, anemia, depression, stroke, thyroid dysfunction, brain tumors, or side effects of medication. Purely genetic cases are rare. And as devastating as Alzheimer's is, there are glimmers of hope that you can lower your risk for the disease.
Q: How can I eat to reduce my risk?
A: First, limit saturated fat. This is the kind of fat you see marbled through bacon and steak. A study of 815 Chicagoans, published in the Archives of Neurology, showed that those who consumed around 25 grams of saturated fat each day had double the risk of developing Alzheimer's compared to those who ate about half that much.
For a bit of context: A fast-food hamburger packs between 3 and 8 grams of saturated fat, 1 ounce of Cheddar cheese about 6 grams, and an egg about 2 grams. Foods from plants contain only trace amounts, with a few exceptions. An ounce of nuts or seeds has 1 to 2 grams, and an avocado 3 to 6, depending on the type and size. And although most plant oils are low in saturated fat, palm and coconut oils are loaded with it.
Second, avoid partially hydrogenated oils. These oils are in many pastries and snack foods. Like saturated fat, they have been linked to Alzheimer's disease. It pays to skip them.
Forgoing partially hydrogenated oils and cutting with saturated fat will likely reduce your total blood cholesterol level, and that's a good thing. The Heart and Estrogen/Progestin Replacement Study found that women whose cholesterol levels were in the top 25 percent had almost double the risk of developing dementia, compared to women with lower cholesterol levels.
Third, get your B vitamins. Folate, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12 help rid the body of homocysteine, a substance in the blood that'??s linked to both Alzheimer's and heart disease—just as cholesterol is. Leafy green vegetables and legumes contain folate, or look for its synthetic form, folic acid, in fortified products, such as breakfast cereals. Sources for vitamin B6 include whole grains, beans, bananas, nuts, and potatoes. Fortified foods, such as fortified soymilk, provide vitamin B12, but I recommend a daily supplement (any common multivitamin will do). That's essential advice for vegans, but a good idea for everyone else, too, because B12 absorption is often less than optimal, especially in people over age 50.
In case you're wondering: no one knows exactly why dietary advice for protecting the heart is almost identical to that for safeguarding the brain, but it could be that strong blood flow to the brain defends against Alzheimer's.
Q: What about alcohol?
A: Moderate drinkers actually have less risk of Alzheimer's disease, compared to teetotalers. But in fact alcohol gets a mixed verdict. Once alcohol intake exceeds about three drinks per day, the health risks rise considerably. And even one drink a day, if consumed every day, increases the risk of breast cancer.
Q: Should I worry about aluminum cookware?
A: Researchers have speculated for years about a possible role for aluminum in Alzheimer's disease, without being able to prove it. But why take a chance? If you are using aluminum cookware, choose products with a nonaluminum lining. Some antacids contain aluminum, as indicated on their labels, so you may want to purchase other brands.