The 18-to-34 set is the first generation to have information at their fingertips that can help prevent memory loss conditions, such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. It starts with your diet. (Photo: Getty Images)
Alzheimer’s is not a disease that strikes suddenly. Research shows that like diabetes and heart disease, it is a slow decline toward a devastating end.
“Alzheimer’s starts in the brain at least 20 years before the signs of dementia become apparent,” says Dr. Richard Isaacson, director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medical College and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.
With all the buzz surrounding prevention, doctors and scientists are just beginning to turn toward the one component in cognitive decline every person, at every age, can control: nutrition. Over the past several months, research on diet and dementia has emerged to some fanfare.
First, it was the Finger study, where researchers focused on an inflammation-curbing diet that was low in added sugar and sodium and high in antioxidants and omega-3s. Following this regimen, the intervention group scored 25 percent higher in overall cognitive functioning, and 83 percent higher in executive functioning — or the ability to effectively organize your thoughts.
Next, there was the MIND diet, a hybrid of the popular DASH and Mediterranean diets, the latter of which most docs tend to follow as the gold standard in nutrition. Researchers discovered that even moderately following this diet of “healthy-brain” foods — like leafy greens, nuts, berries and fish — slashed Alzheimer’s risk by 35 percent.
Related: Meet The MIND Diet For Better Memory
Now, doctors are beginning to make a push toward cognitive decline in the younger set — starting with the millennial generation. “The earlier someone gets educated, the better it will be,” Isaacson explains. “You’re never too young or too old; my youngest patient is 27, and my oldest is 91.”
Lugavere thinks that his generation is uniquely positioned to truly change the trajectory of their mental health for the long term. “We’re inherently optimistic about the future, and we’re really plugged into what’s happening in the world,” he explains. “I’m really obsessed with this topic. I was premed in college, and also interested in psychology, so the role of nutrition is really fascinating to me. I’ve always been really interested in how nutrition can sway a disease.”
Lugavere’s interests converged several years ago when his mother, at 59, started to experience symptoms of cognitive decline. “She was health-conscious her whole life,” he says. “Seeing her deal with that, at first, was very traumatic. I started to use my interest in nutrition, science and the brain — there had to be some sort of external variables to control, which opened up this Pandora’s box for preventing cognitive decline.”
Research is beginning to discover, and confirm, that certain facets of our diets and practices do play a role in prevention. Lugavere adheres to principles from the MIND and Finger studies, but has researched out beyond them, too.
“I eat a lower-carbohydrate diet than the MIND and the Finger study,” he says. “I’ve extrapolated, as there’s research showing what precedes Alzheimer’s is glucose hypometabolism. Agnes Floel, for instance, looks specifically at the role of glucose.” Among Floel’s research is a 2014 study that showed high levels of glucose in the brain were associated with atrophy of the hippocampus — the area of the brain primarily associated with memory and spatial navigation — and worsening memory.
Isaacson has been looking at where these studies are headed, and putting ideas into practice in his clinic, adapting research and tailoring effective eating strategies. His current recommendations include reducing “bad” carbohydrates, increasing vegetable consumption (especially dark, leafy greens), as well as eating a half-cup of berries two or three times a week and fish twice weekly.
For the millennial group especially, Isaacson knows he has to take an attractive approach. “Millennials want to enjoy their lives, too,” he says. “So there’s room for a great, mind-healthy dessert like berries and dark chocolate.”
He also prescribes “a mocha for your memory in the morning,” as research is beginning to show that dark chocolate has powerful antioxidants that may protect against cognitive decline.
There’s also key research on fasting, which seems to have a neuroprotective effect — something both Isaacson prescribes in this clinic, and Lugavere has followed himself. “I use carbohydrate restriction overnight,” Isaacson says. “I have my patients not eating carbs for 14 hours, five nights or more a week, which stimulates mild ketosis and is a brain-healthy mechanism.”
While nutrition and eating is important, it’s not the only component of brain health. “You have to hit from every angle,” Isaacson says. “That means lifestyle, too. That means exercise, learning new things, optimizing sleep, and reducing stress.”
Luckily, the millennial generation is tuned into healthy lifestyle strategies — and there’s interest in protecting health long-term. “Just like we go to Whole Foods now and there is a section with so much on general health, I think in a few years, we’ll see a section on brain health — and I think millennials will really be the first to get on board with it.”
First step? Getting acquainted with current research. “I think these ideas are really important for young people,” Lugavere says. “I want to bridge that gap between what’s happening at these major conferences and the public. Before I began to research it, I knew nothing about neurodegenerative disease. What I thought I knew was all myth. It’s not really hereditary. It’s not a disease of the old.”
It’s a disease you can take active steps in preventing — and the millennial generation is the first with enough research and information to have real impact. A diet strategy Isaacson teaches patients is “the Mediterranean, meets the MIND, meets something else,” he says. “We add some of the more nuanced interventions that might not be prime time yet.”
Here are some key principles Isaacson emphasizes in his practice:
• Eliminate carbs for 14 hours overnight. Graduate to that number by starting with 10 hours, then 12, then 14.
• Eat two to three servings of whole grains a day.
• Reduce “bad carbs,” such as processed foods, cakes and pastries.
• Eat a half-cup of berries two to three times per week.
• Increase vegetable consumption, especially dark, leafy greens and cruciferous veggies.
• Eat fish two times per week, like salmon or albacore tuna.
• Try a “mocha for your memory in the morning.”
• For dessert, opt for berries and a serving of dark chocolate.
• Limit beef (grass-fed) to two servings per week.
• Don’t vilify any one food group; seek moderation.
• Focus on lifestyle; exercise, get adequate sleep, reduce stress, and challenge yourself mentally to learn new things daily (check out Alzheimer’s Universe for more on staying sharp).