From Harvard: Med Diet and Exercise Help Alzheimer’s, Not Supplements

mediterranean diet cognitive decline

Photo by Andrei-Zdetovetchi

A 2012 paper out of Harvard Medical School states that supplements outside of vitamin E have failed to prove any benefit or prevention for Alzheimer’s disease – but diet and exercise do.

The paper comes from the 2012 December’s issue of Harvard Men’s Health Watch, which focused upon the findings of Dr. Gad Marshall, a Harvard Alzheimer’s researcher and Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard. Dr. Marshall contends that the major supplements people ask about – including B vitamins, Vitamin C, Co-enzyme Q10, Huperzine A, Ginko biloba, Fish oil, Curcumin and Coconut oil have yet to be proven to slow cognitive decline or prevent Alzheimer’s disease.

“There are a lot of things out there for which we have no data on whether they are safe or do anything to help,” said Dr. Marshall. “My patients and their families ask a lot about supplements, and I try to point them to whatever evidence we have.”

According to Dr. Marshall, only vitamin E has shown any promise to preserving improving memory among supplements. “There have been several studies showing that at these high doses there was a small increase in the death rate,” he said. But he added that large dose vitamin E supplementation also can come with safety issues. “Vitamin E at doses higher than 400 international units (IU) per day is risky for people with active cardiovascular disease or risk factors for it.”

What are proven to delay cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s, according to Dr. Marshall, include dietary and lifestyle changes – specifically the Mediterranean diet and exercise.

“My strongest recommendations are a Mediterranean-style diet and regular physical exercise,” he says. “There’s good evidence from multiple studies showing that these lifestyle modifications can prevent cognitive decline and dementia and also slow down existing cognitive decline.”

These two factors have been proven to reduce memory and cognitive decline without question. The evidence comes from numerous studies and reviews from eminent researchers around the world.

For example, a study from Australia’s Edith Cowan University of nearly 1,000 people – including some with mild cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s – found that those who had diets closest to a Mediterranean Diet had the least incidence of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. Many other studies have confirmed these results over the past few years.

So what about the supplements mentioned above? Why are have these been given so much attention if they aren’t proven to prevent or delay Alzheimer’s?

Because those nutrients have been proven, in one way or another, to benefit nerve function and brain cell function. The leap, however, has been to prove that when taken as supplements, these isolated nutrients will reduce cognitive decline or prevent Alzheimer’s disease.

As to whether the research has been focused enough to establish that these supplements will definitely not help reduce cognitive decline is largely unanswered, primarily because of a lack of funding and incentive – noting that naturally occurring nutrients cannot be patented. Ginkgo and vitamin E are among the few given much funding focus.

The question also arises is what are the factors of the Mediterranean diet and why does this diet help reduce cognitive decline? As stated recently by researchers from the University of Malta – the Med Diet “is rich in the antioxidants Vitamins C and E, polyunsaturated fatty acids and polyphenolic compounds.”

As we explore the relationship between many of the supplements tested and these nutrient-rich foods, we can easily see a trend. Those supplements tested, such as B vitamins, vitamin C, vitamin E, Co-Q10 and others have been isolated from nature and in sterile laboratory environments. Some, such as vitamin E, have been completely synthetic.

What do these elements have in common with the Mediterranean diet? Yes, the Med Diet certainly does contain many of these nutrients. But the Med Diet, as pointed out by the University of Malta scientists – contains numerous nutrients that synergize with each other. And because the Med Diet is rich in plant-based foods, the Diet contains polyphenols.

These polyphenols are plant components that include flavonoids, proanthrocyanidins, sterols and many other types of special compounds. These compounds work synergistically within plant-based foods to provide a host of benefits, which include brain cell health, artery health, heart health, liver and kidney health and many others. The combination of these plant-based foods provide the ultimate in cognitive decline prevention, because along with other benefits they reduce damage produced by free radicals – which are ultimately at the core of cognitive decline according to most research.

The bottom line is that nature works in synergy, just as the body does. The brain does not sit in a laboratory jar isolated from the rest of the body. The brain operates as part of the rest of the whole body. The health of the rest of that body – including the arteries, heart, liver, kidneys, bloodstream and so on – directly affects the health of our brain cells.

A primarily plant-based diet and regular exercise are the key elements in keeping the whole body healthy. This is proven not only in cognitive research, but in cancer research, heart disease research, liver and kidney research and elsewhere. Turns out, those plant-based foods the Western diet relegates to a small portion at the edge of the plate are the very medicines our body needs to keep itself healthy.

 

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REFERENCES:

Féart C, Pérès K, Samieri C, Letenneur L, Dartigues JF, Barberger-Gateau P.  Adherence to a Mediterranean diet and onset of disability in older persons. Eur J Epidemiol. 2011 Sep;26(9):747-56. doi: 10.1007/s10654-011-9611-4.

Gu Y, Scarmeas N. Dietary patterns in Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive aging. Curr Alzheimer Res. 2011 Aug;8(5):510-9.

Solfrizzi V, Frisardi V, Seripa D, Logroscino G, Imbimbo BP, D’Onofrio G, Addante F, Sancarlo D, Cascavilla L, Pilotto A, Panza F. Mediterranean diet in predementia and dementia syndromes. Curr Alzheimer Res. 2011 Aug;8(5):520-42.

Solfrizzi V, Panza F, Frisardi V, Seripa D, Logroscino G, Imbimbo BP, Pilotto A. Diet and Alzheimer’s disease risk factors or prevention: the current evidence. Expert Rev Neurother. 2011 May;11(5):677-708.

Devanand D, Lee J, Luchsinger J, Manly J, Marder K, Mayeux R, Scarmeas N, Schupf N, Stern Y. Lessons from Epidemiologic Research about Risk Factors, Modifiers, and Progression of Late Onset Alzheimer’s Disease in New York City at Columbia University Medical Center. J Alzheimers Dis. 2012 Jul 24.

Wyka J. Nutritional factors in prevention of Alzheimer’s disease. Rocz Panstw Zakl Hig. 2012;63(2):135-40.

Gardener S, Gu Y, Rainey-Smith SR, Keogh JB, Clifton PM, Mathieson SL, Taddei K, Mondal A, Ward VK, Scarmeas N, Barnes M, Ellis KA, Head R, Masters CL, Ames D, Macaulay SL, Rowe CC, Szoeke C, Martins RN; AIBL Research Group. Adherence to a Mediterranean diet and Alzheimer’s disease risk in an Australian population. Transl Psychiatry. 2012 Oct 2;2:e164.

Vassallo N, Scerri C. Mediterranean Diet and Dementia of the Alzheimer Type. Curr Aging Sci. 2012 Sep 27.

Case Adams is a California Naturopath with a PhD in Natural Health Sciences, and Board Certified Alternative Medicine Practitioner. He has authored 26 books on natural healing strategies. “My journey into writing about alternative medicine began about 9:30 one evening after I finished with a patient at the clinic I practiced at over a decade ago. I had just spent the last two hours explaining how diet, sleep and other lifestyle choices create health problems and how changes in these, along with certain herbal medicines and other natural strategies can radically yet safely turn ones health around. As I drove home that night, I realized I needed to get this knowledge out to more people. So I began writing about health with a mission to reach those who desperately need this information. The strategies in my books and articles are backed by scientific evidence along with wisdom handed down through traditional medicines for thousands of years.” Case connects with the elements by surfing, hiking and being a beach bum.

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