Did you know that every 66 seconds, someone in the United States will develop Alzheimer’s disease? In fact, Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the country. (1) While there is no cure yet for the disease, we do know food matters and that certain foods raise Alzheimer’s risk. On the flip side, diet is also one of the natural treatments for Alzheimer’s. And it’s ever-more important: a new study shows that a Western-style diet heavy on meat, sweets and high-fat foods is linked to higher levels of Alzheimer’s. (2)
The study found that amongst nine other countries, including Brazil, Chile, Cuba and Mongolia, individuals in the U.S. have a 4 percent increased chance of developing Alzheimer’s. In fact, when Japan’s traditional diet shifted more towards its Western counterpart, Alzheimer’s rates soared (along with waistlines) from 1 percent in 1985 to 7 percent in 2008.
Clearly, certain foods raise Alzheimer’s risk. But this latest study is the latest in a string of evidence showing that diet is a major form of natural Alzheimer’s treatment options. What you eat (and don’t eat) matters. Let’s take a closer look.
Science Says These Foods Raise Alzheimer’s Risk
While I’m a fan of red meat, too much of a good thing might increase your chances of Alzheimer’s. (4) (And, of course, eating low-quality red meat is a big no-no.) Red meat is an iron-rich food. And though your body needs enough iron to avoid anemia, chronic fatigue and muscle weakness, too much iron can actually speed up damage created from too many free radicals unleashed in our bodies.
As the iron builds up in the brain, it does so in an area known as “gray matter,” a part of the brain that shows one of the first signs of degeneration as we age. Too much iron in that area seems to speed up the process even more.
That doesn’t mean saying goodbye to hamburgers and steaks, but rather being mindful of how much you’re eating a week and choosing the best quality, grass-fed beef available is key.
Refined Carbohydrates & Sugars
If you needed another reason to stay away from starchy pasta and breads, here’s one. Diets high in carbohydrates and sugar can raise your risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
A 2012 study found that people 70 years or older who ate a diet heavy in carbohydrates were almost four times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s than their healthier eating counterparts. That spike in Alzheimer’s is far beyond normal age-related issues you’d expect to see in regards to memory and thinking. (5) This makes the sugar industry scandal even more devastating. Industry funded Harvard research in the 1960s blamed downplayed sugar’s role in coronary heart disease. Today, we know sugar’s role go far beyond heart disease and greatly impacts the brain, too.
The theory behind why carbohydrates, which are often loaded with sugar (check out a white bread label sometime!), affect the brain so strongly is that carbs raise glucose and insulin levels rapidly, causing a blood sugar spike. Eventually, that can lead to insulin resistance over time. (In fact, reversing diabetes naturally could be one of the best things you can do for your brain, since Alzheimer’s is now being pegged “type 3 diabetes.)
The more our bodies ignore insulin, the more our pancreas produce. These high levels of insulin now coursing through the body might actually damage blood vessels in the brain, leading to issues with memory. In fact, in Alzheimer’s patients, parts of the brain become resistant to insulin — and while researchers aren’t sure why, there seems to be a link between diabetes and Alzheimer’s. (6)
No, not old foods! “AGEs” stands for advanced glycation end products. These are chemicals that are found both naturally in our bodies and in some foods. Scientists previously linked foods high in AGEs to diabetes and poor cardiovascular health. Now it seems it might play a role in a declining brain. When foods raise Alzheimer’s risk, AGEs are top of the list.
A 2014 study first examined the role of AGE in mice. After feeding the creatures’ three different types of diets — one low in AGEs, one high in AGEs and a “normal” diet — those mice who were eating the least amount of AGEs enjoyed improved cognitive function. (7)
Next, the researchers put their theory to the test with humans. They studied the diets of 90 healthy people 60 years old or older. Those with high-AGE diets fared the worst, showing decline over the course of the 9-month study.
The National Institute on Aging (NIA) also published a study in 2017 that linked high glucose levels with severe Alzheimer’s disease. Specifically, there’s growing evidence that Alzheimer’s resembles a new form of diabetes, known as type 3, because abnormal glucose metabolism causes high glucose concentration in brain tissue. Similarities between diabetes and Alzheimer’s have been suspected, however it has been difficult to evaluate because glucose does not need insulin to enter the brain or to enter neurons. NIA researchers measured glucose levels in different brain regions from tissue samples at autopsy from participants in the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging. The findings of the research could assist with developing new treatments to help the brain overwhelm glycolysis defects in Alzheimer’s. However, studies in abnormalities in other metabolic pathways linked to glycolysis are needed to determine how it relates to Alzheimer’s pathology in the brain. (3)
Cook Smarter Even When Foods Raise Alzheimer’s Risk
It’s important to note that all foods contain some level of AGEs. Meats, cheeses and animal fats tend to have the most by far, though. And because AGE production actually increases with heat, the way you cook your meat matters when it comes to avoiding AGEs and how foods raise your Alzheimer’s risk.
Grilling and frying meats speeds up AGE production much more than other methods of cooking. For example, a serving of raw chicken has an AGE level of 800; fried chicken has a level of 8,000. (8)
Skip the deep fryer and high-heat grill and opt instead for stewing, poaching, braising or using a grill pan on the stove.
On the supplement side of things, researchers are even starting to find that olive leaf benefits include inhibiting the formation of AGEs.
The #1 Alzheimer’s-Fueling Food
If I had to warn you about the top food to stay away from when it comes to foods raise Alzheimer’s risk, it would be this: A conventional steak coated with store-bought marinade and charred on the grill.
This one, popular food features all of the components of foods that raise Alzheimer’s risk: Factory farmed red meat with skyrocketing levels of AGEs due to grilling on high heat. Beyond that, more store-bought marinades are loaded with added sugars and sweeteners, another class of foods that raise Alzheimer’s risk.
When you do grill an occasional steak, be sure to choose grass-fed and organic, marinade in a vinegar and herb base and cook slow and low to reduce AGE levels. As a side note, marinading smarter helps you lower grilling carcinogens by 99 percent.
Reducing Your Alzheimer’s Risk: What to Eat
While there are some foods you should avoid to lower your Alzheimer’s risk, there are a ton that you should be enjoying that can actually help lower your risk.
Following the Mediterranean diet is one of the best things you can do for your brain. Emphasizing fresh fruits and veggies, wild-caught seafood, poultry, nuts, olive oil and dairy in moderation — with red meat enjoyed on special occasions or just once a week — the Mediterranean has been touted as one of the best ways to decrease your chances of developing Alzheimer’s through nutrition. (9,10)
Because the Mediterranean diet is heavy on brain foods like avocados, leafy greens and olive oil, it makes sense that following the diet would keep the brain in tip-top shape. In fact, all of my five best healthy fats for your body are part of the Mediterranean diet, including omega-3 fatty acids. These are found in fish like wild-caught salmon and play a huge role in brain health, slowing down the aging process.
Final Thoughts on Foods that Raise Alzheimer’s Risk
Researchers are linking a diet rich in red meat, added sugars and refined carbohydrates to a higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
So while there might not be a quick fix to preventing Alzheimer’s disease, you can raise or reduce your risk of developing the disease at each meal. Now that you know certain foods raise your Alzheimer’s risk, which will you choose?