For decades, moms have expounded on the power of food. Carrots improve vision, spinach strengthens muscles, bread crust curls the straightest of hair. As we now know, much of what Mom told us was a ploy to get us to eat the things we hated most. But today we have science to back up at least some of those claims.
In the past 20 years, researchers have produced a body of evidence closely linking diet with health. Although sometimes conflicting and often confusing, it has become abundantly clear: Food matters. And although you're powerless in determining your height or the color of your eyes, you can control what you eat.
In fact, it is the control factor that initially attracted Rush researcher Martha Clare Morris, ScD, to investigating the connection between food and the mind, specifically Alzheimer's disease. "I've always been very interested in research that is directed at ways people can manage their own lives to prevent a disease rather than focusing on what therapies they can use once they have it," Morris says. Her studies, which are part of a more expansive research program at the Rush Institute for Healthy Aging, zero in on what foods and what substances within those foods appear to protect against the dementia associated with Alzheimer's disease.
By surveying approximately 6,000 people initially unaffected by Alzheimer's disease on Chicago's South Side, Morris, her colleague, Rush researcher Denis A. Evans, MD, and their team gathered a mountain-high pile of data about dietary habits. They then regularly evaluated a subgroup for signs of Alzheimer's disease.
Their findings? Enough to make you think twice about what you eat today.
First, they found that foods rich in vitamin E were associated with a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. Those foods include oil-based salad dressings, fortified cereals, green leafy vegetables, cantaloupe, seeds and nuts.
They also found that people who eat fish at least once a week were 60 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease than those who rarely or never ate fish. The key ingredient, the Rush team believes, is the n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in fish.
From these data, the team made an association between high intakes of saturated and trans-unsaturated fats and Alzheimer's disease. That means it's better to limit fatty meats, full-fat dairy products like butter and milk and vegetable shortening, which is often found in crackers and cookies.
But why these foods? What do they do that could prevent or cause Alzheimer's disease? Although the exact cause (or causes) of Alzheimer's is unknown, research indicates that oxidation of the brain over time does cause mental deterioration. Vitamin E, as an antioxidant, may combat that process. The n-3 fatty acids found in fish share chemical similarities to substances found in the brain's gray matter. These substances help transmit signals to the brain, allowing for learning and memory storage. As for the "bad fats," these culprits are associated with high cholesterol, and high cholesterol has been shown to be bad for both the heart and the brain.
Although swearing off processed snacks and sausage forever and embracing a life of tuna salads isn't necessarily a bad thing, Morris cautions that it's still too soon to tell if diet is the key to preventing Alzheimer's disease.
"This kind of research is still in its infancy," Morris says. "There may be, and probably are, other factors in play." In fact, in another study, Rush researcher Robert Wilson, PhD, Evans and Morris found that performing mind-stimulating activities, such as crossword puzzles, may also protect against Alzheimer's disease. In addition, Wilson and his colleagues recently identified a relationship between distress and Alzheimer's disease.
Morris's findings are enough, however, to encourage her and many others to skip the bacon bits and sprinkle their salads with sunflower seeds instead.
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