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Shining a Light on Alzheimer’s Prevention

posted Apr 8, 2018, 1:49 PM by Evangelina DiSpirito, RDN, E-RYT   [ updated Aug 28, 2018, 6:29 AM ]
By: Evangelina DiSpirito, RDN, E-RYT, Experienced Diabetes Educator and Mindful Weight-Management RD Nutritionist


Every so often, when you switch on the TV, you will see an advertisement for diabetes medication or memory supplements.  Following the advertisement is the disclaimer with a fast-talking background voice spouting off the long list of horrible side effects.  All the while, images of smiling people grace the screen.   For those who have diabetes, prediabetes or who are concerned about memory loss, these commercials can be enticing, but confusing at the same time.  I.L. Creations’ nutrition theme for April is “Nutrition Trends for 2018,” and the trend right now is the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease. 

Diabetes is a big money maker, with the latest 2017 CDC report estimating $322 billion dollars being spent in the U.S. on diabetes treatment.    Likewise, the cost to treat Alzheimer’s in the U.S. was estimated at $259 billion dollars.  The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that 1 in 11 Americans have diabetes, and 1 in 10 Americans over age 65 have Alzheimer’s.  Historically, it has been reported that Alzheimer’s is a disease that cannot be cured, prevented or slowed.   However, research in measuring insulin activity in brain cells (neurons) provides hope for prevention, pointing to nutrition and lifestyle as key players.  This research links diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.

To better understand the connection, let’s take a closer look at diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.    We will look at the key nutrition and lifestyle actions that you can take to decrease your chances of developing Alzheimer’s.

What is Diabetes?   Diabetes is a genetically-linked condition where the body cannot produce insulin or use its own insulin effectively (insulin resistance).  Our bodies make blood sugar from foods we eat that contain carbohydrates, as well as release sugar stored in muscles and the liver when we skip meals.  Blood sugar is the fuel our body cells need to survive and maintain healthy organs and physical functions.  Insulin is the hormone that transports the blood sugar to our cells for energy. If insulin is not available or is not used effectively, blood sugar levels rise in the blood stream.

In a healthy person without diabetes, the body is able to naturally bring blood sugars to healthy levels following a meal.  However, in a person with diabetes, the body is unable to bring blood sugar to healthy levels following a meal, and blood sugar levels remain high, causing damage to many organs, including cells in the brain.

Having diabetes and pre-diabetes puts individuals at higher risk for cardiovascular disease, including stroke.   However, individuals with diabetes can achieve healthy blood sugar levels through adjustment of the portion size, the quality of food and beverages they consume, and/or through medication and physical activity.   

What is Alzheimer’s disease?

Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive, genetically-linked brain disease which causes a decline in a person's cognitive abilities, memory, mood, and behavior.   Persons may initially experience symptoms such as forgetfulness, which is called mild cognitive impairment (MCI), years before Alzheimer’s develops.  As time goes on, the brain cells (neurons) diminish and die, and can cause more episodes of memory loss and confusion.  Alzheimer’s disease is commonly diagnosed when symptoms interfere with a person’s normal part of daily living. 

Insulin Resistance: The Connection with Diabetes and Alzheimer’s

Researchers have previously identified insulin resistance activity in brain cells of persons with Alzheimer’s disease, similar to those with diabetes.  These researchers thus coined the term “Type 3 diabetes” for Alzheimer’s disease.   Insulin resistance can lead to high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, which increases your risk of stroke and decline in brain function.   Recognition of this connection provides an opportunity for Alzheimer’s prevention through the adoption of healthy nutrition and lifestyle habits, which make the body more insulin-sensitive.  

Alzheimer’s and diabetes share a common history.  Like Type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s historically has been viewed as a normal part of aging, especially in those individuals who have family members with the disease.  Today, we now know that Type 2 diabetes can be prevented through healthy nutrition and lifestyle.  Similarly, Alzheimer’s is also a genetically-linked disease that may be prevented through healthy nutrition and lifestyle.   The identification of insulin resistance in the brain provides a new tool in preventing Alzheimer’s disease. 

Nutrition and Lifestyle Steps to Prevent Alzheimer’s

The nutrition and lifestyle actions we provide to those with diabetes will be similar to the advice we prescribe to those who have a family history of Alzheimer’s.  The following are the steps you can take to prevent Alzheimer’s.

1)      Stay on top of your health checkups

·       Get screened for diabetes, high blood pressure, and cholesterol.  This allows you to take proactive steps to improve your nutrition and lifestyle habits.

·       If you have prediabetes or diabetes, work with a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and your doctor, who is experienced in diabetes education to help you achieve normal blood sugar levels.


2)       Eat more brain power foods.  Start with making half your plate fruits and vegetables.

·        Blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries provide an abundance of antioxidants to combat inflammation.  

·       Leafy green vegetables provide a good source of folate, which can reduce inflammation in the body.  Avocados are a good source of omega-3’s, potassium, and antioxidants which are all protective of brain health. 

Recipe Tip: Brainpower smoothie: ¾ berries (blueberries or raspberries), 1/2  avocado, ½ banana and 1 c. of coconut milk.  Blend well and enjoy.   


3)      Get at least 30 minutes of physical activity every day

·       Walking, yoga, strength-training.    Previous studies have shown that exercise improves memory and coordination.


4)      De-Stress:   Stress can make your blood sugars rise and cause inflammation in the body.

·       Take mental breaks throughout your workday. Simply focusing on your breathing, and taking mindful breaths, can relax the mind and body.


5)      Sleep.  Getting at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep every night can promote healthy blood sugar levels and thus brain health.


6)     Exercise your brain by learning something new.  Studies show learning a new skill can foster the growth of the synapses, which are responsible for communication between neurons (brain cells) and help with memory and cognitive function.

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