Everyone knows the importance of a healthy diet for maintaining physical, psychological, and cognitive health. Regularly eating certain foods can reduce your risk for all sorts of serious health conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
The Importance of Proper Nutrition and Diet for Dementia Patients
A varied, balanced diet is the foundation of good health. No matter who you are, nutrient-rich foods are key for keeping the body strong and promoting well-being and vitality.
People with dementia may struggle to get adequate nutrition from their diets. As dementia progresses, patients often eat less due to reduced appetite, difficulty using cutlery, problems with chewing, and dysphagia (i.e., difficulty swallowing). Common behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia (such as apathy, depression, and refusal behavior) can also contribute to limited food intake.
As a result, weight loss is common among people with dementia. An estimated 30-40% of dementia patients experience significant weight loss and many are at risk of malnutrition. Poor nutrition in elderly individuals is associated with increased health issues, lack of physical ability, earlier death, and a generally worse quality of life. For dementia patients, inadequate nutrition may contribute to more severe dementia symptoms and behavioral problems.
What Foods Are Good for Dementia Patients?
It is very important for dementia patients to eat a nutritious diet, especially those with light appetites. If a person is only taking in a small amount of food, what they eat should be packed with vitamins and minerals. Some of the best foods for dementia patients include whole grains, healthy fats, fish, fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and dark chocolate.
Whole grains (like quinoa, brown rice, whole wheat, and oats) are a great source of dietary fiber and essential vitamins and minerals. The potential health benefits of eating whole grains include reduced risk of obesity, heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, and other chronic diseases. Whole grains also promote gut health and can lower cholesterol levels.
Research suggests that the antioxidants in oats may reduce inflammation in the brain. Inflammation has been linked to cognitive decline, so increasing a dementia patient’s oat intake can help to support their cognitive function.
Fats can be divided into two main categories; ‘good’ fats, and ‘bad’ fats. ‘Bad’ fats are the saturated fats found in butter, cheese, cake, fatty meat, and most fast food. Saturated fats are known to raise LDL cholesterol levels, and are not considered healthy. ‘Good’ fats are the monounsaturated fats found in avocados, vegetable oils (like olive, sunflower, canola, soy, and corn), nuts, and seeds. They don’t raise your cholesterol in the same way as saturated fats do, and are often called ‘healthy fats.’
Healthy fats are particularly beneficial for brain health, possibly because they reduce inflammation. This is very important for people with dementia, as reduced inflammation can help to promote healthy cognitive function. In contrast, ‘bad’ fats have been found to raise brain inflammation and should be avoided.
Fish and Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are found primarily in fatty fish such as mackerel, salmon, tuna, herring, and sardines. Plant-based sources of omega-3 include flaxseed, soya, and canola oils, chia seeds, and walnuts.
These essential nutrients have a variety of health benefits. A diet rich in omega-3 may reduce your risk of heart disease, cancer, macular, degeneration, rheumatoid arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, and dementia. Omega-3 fatty acids are particularly good for brain health and promote healthy cognitive function by increasing learning, memory, and blood flow to the brain. This is especially important for people with dementia, as eating foods high in omega-3 may help to slow or reduce cognitive decline.
Colorful Fruits and Vegetables
Colorful fruits and vegetables contain many different types of phytochemicals. Phytochemicals are compounds that contribute to the color, flavor, and aroma of plants. They also support the health of your bones, joints, digestive system, immune system, and brain.
Polyphenols have been found to have a number of neuroprotective benefits that may promote learning, memory, and cognitive function. Therefore, eating colorful fruits and vegetables may support both physical and psychological health in dementia patients.
Dietary sources of lean protein include fish, poultry, and beans. Protein is a key macronutrient that is essential for the healthy function of all bodily systems. It forms the building blocks of all muscles and organs and is vital for cell and tissue repair.
Protein is also important for healthy cognitive function. Studies have found that higher protein intake is strongly linked to a lower risk of cognitive decline, so protein-rich foods may help to maintain cognitive function in seniors with dementia. The best sources of protein are whole foods, as processed meats (like hotdogs) may contribute to poorer cognitive function.
Dark chocolate is considered a ‘superfood’ thanks to its impressive nutritional profile and powerful antioxidant capacity. It also contains a group of phytochemicals called flavonoids, which are known for their positive effects on cognitive health and function.
One study into the effects of dark chocolate on cognitive function in young adults found that daily cocoa intake may enhance learning, memory, and attention. These findings suggest that cocoa has a protective effect on cognitive function, and may even help to slow or prevent the progressive cognitive decline caused by dementia.
Foods That Support Cognitive Health
A balanced diet abundant in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein is fundamental for brain health. The brain consumes 20% of all the calories you eat, so maintaining a healthy caloric intake is very important for keeping it fuelled up and functioning properly.
‘Brain foods’ are rich in the vital nutrients needed to support cognitive function. These foods may help people with dementia by promoting brain health and vitality. The best foods for boosting cognitive performance and memory are:
Fatty fish is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids which are known to support healthy cognitive function.
Blueberries are full of anthocyanins; compounds with antioxidant properties that can improve brain health.
Turmeric is a spice with strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that may help to improve memory in people with Alzheimer’s disease.
Broccoli contains lots of Vitamin K, which has been found to have a positive effect on cognitive performance.
Walnuts are rich in healthy fats and have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. Research has found that these properties may benefit cognitive function and improve learning skills and memory.
Encouraging Dementia Patients to Eat
People with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia sometimes lose interest in food and lose weight as a result. Poor appetite in dementia patients has a range of possible causes including:
- Physical difficulties with chewing and swallowing
- Dental pain
- Difficulty communicating hunger and food likes/dislikes
- Fatigue and apathy
- Medication-induced appetite changes
- Decreased sense of taste and smell
Sudden weight loss can lead to malnutrition, which can be dangerous for seniors especially those with dementia. Nutrient deficiencies can contribute to the development of delirium; a state of confusion to which dementia patients are more susceptible than the general population.
When encouraging someone with dementia to eat it can be helpful to consider their personal preferences and routines, their accessibility to food, and their appetite.
The best food for someone with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia will depend heavily on their personal likes and dislikes. A person’s taste in food can change dramatically as dementia progresses, so make sure to ask what they do or don’t want to eat.
Creating a comfortable dining environment can make eating easier for seniors with dementia. Choose a cozy spot for mealtimes and stick to a schedule to create a steady routine around eating. Keeping familiar toys for dementia patients nearby can put your loved one at ease, and may help to prevent confusion and promote a healthy appetite.
Access to Food and Drink
Physical and cognitive problems can make it harder for dementia patients to find and access food, and to communicate when they are hungry. Leaving snacks and drinks in visible, easily accessible locations can encourage dementia patients to eat more frequently.
Changes in Appetite
It is common for people with dementia to feel less hungry than they used to. People with small appetites may be overwhelmed by large plates of food and refuse to eat. Try serving smaller portions at mealtimes and encourage snacking throughout the day.
Psychological Health Conditions
Psychological health conditions (such as anxiety and depression) can cause a loss of appetite. If you think this applies to your loved one, schedule an appointment with their doctor to discuss possible treatment options.
Agitation is a common feature of mid and late-stage dementia and may contribute to poor appetite among patients. If your loved one becomes distressed around mealtimes, it may help to include soothing, calming activities or games for people with dementia in your afternoon routine. This can help to soothe pre-meal agitation and encourage eating.
Which Foods Help to Prevent Dementia?
Research has identified many different foods that fight memory loss, and including these in your regular diet may help to prevent dementia.
The Mediterranean diet (a dietary pattern traditionally enjoyed by populations bordering the Mediterranean Sea) is widely considered the ‘gold standard’ of long-term health. It includes abundant fruits, vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, dairy, and fish. Red meat is consumed infrequently (1-2 times per month) and highly-processed or sugary foods are eaten only occasionally, and in small amounts.
People who stick to a Mediterranean diet have a lower risk of developing heart disease, cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease. One review found that people whose diets were most consistently aligned with the traditional Mediterranean diet were 33% less likely to develop dementia than those with the least Mediterranean-like diet.
Which Foods Are Bad for People With Dementia?
Proper nutrition is very important for people with dementia. While there is no specific food that dementia patients should avoid, it is advisable to limit highly processed foods and foods high in sugar, salt, and saturated fats. A balanced, varied diet supports both physical and psychological health and can help to reduce the risk of other medical conditions.
Is Sugar Bad for Dementia?
Eating sugar isn’t a direct cause of dementia, but it may raise your risk of cognitive decline. Research has found that a high sugar intake is associated with an increased likelihood of Alzheimer’s disease, other types of dementia, and stroke.
People with dementia don’t need to cut sugar from their diet, but they shouldn’t overindulge in sweet foods. However, if their appetite starts to decline as dementia progresses, adding sugar to their food may encourage them to eat.
Which Foods May Increase Your Dementia Risk?
Just as some diets can help to prevent dementia, others may increase your risk of major cognitive decline. There is no one food that causes dementia, but there are foods you should avoid to keep your dementia risk low.
Highly processed foods (such as soda, deep-fried food, processed meats, and sugary snacks) can trigger inflammation, which is thought to contribute to brain aging. This may increase your likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia.
There is no such thing as a dementia prevention diet, but there are plenty of foods that fight memory loss and cognitive decline. A diet high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and lean protein can have long-term benefits for brain health that may reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.