Considered a disease of aging, Alzheimer's is typically diagnosed after 65 but can be diagnosed much earlier. It is expected to affect one in 85 people globally by 2050.
Aging itself can cause a natural degeneration of neurons (nerve cells in the brain) and the circuitry between neurons. Aging mice were able to navigate mazes and recognize objects better while on a ketogenic diet compared to a control group of mice on a regular diet. Another animal study showed that ketogenic diet fed to brain-injured juvenile mice protected neurons from damage and even allowed them to regenerate.
The effectiveness of ketogenic therapy for epilepsy has been proven in many clinical studies. Although we still do not understand how it works to control seizures, there is compelling evidence that many neurological conditions are linked—people with Alzheimer’s disease, for example, have a higher incidence of seizures. Seizures are common in people with diseases with metabolic defects, and studies show that dietary intervention is the most effective treatment.
Doctors agree that physical exercise, social and mental activity and a healthy diet maximize brain health in the face of Alzheimer's disease.
So what constitutes a healthy diet for someone with or at risk for Alzheimer's?
According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, avoiding saturated fats and eating a diet rich in carbohydrate from vegetables, legumes, whole grains and fruit are key recommendations to prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Similarly, the current federal dietary guidelines for American adults recommends “fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fat-free and low-fat dairy products, and seafood” and discourages “solid fats.”
These recommendations are the opposite of ketogenic diets, which rely on fat as the main source of energy. Coconut oil, butter, cream, nut, seed and olive oils are used lavishly in ketogenic diets. Also, ketogenic diets eliminate whole grains and, while including vegetables, allow very little fruit.
A 2008 study examining postmortem brains of healthy versus affected by Alzheimer’s revealed the inability of the Alzheimer’s brain to transport glucose (blood sugar) across the blood brain barrier. Their research and others suggests a possible mechanism by which the glucose transporter deficiency may lead to neurodegeneration. Glucose transporter defect is also the primary cause of a condition known as Glucose transporter type I deficiency syndrome (Glut-1DS). This rare syndrome results in cognitive impairment if not treated. The most effective and currently the only treatment for Glut-1DS is the ketogenic diet.
Recent studies raise the possibility that elements of the ketogenic diet may provide symptomatic relief and even delay the onset of Alzheimer's.
A 53-year-old man who developed early-onset Alzheimer’s had significant memory improvement with the addition of medium-chain triglycerides, in the form of a highly ketogenic oil, to his diet. His physician wife Mary Newport, a neonatologist, had used this oil in her practice to improve weight gain in infants. In 2010 Dr. Newport published a review of people with dementia who had medium-chain triglycerides added to their diets. Of the 60 people in this study, 90% of their caregivers reported improvement in one or more areas including memory, cognition, social interaction, speech, resumption of lost activities, sleep, appetite and vision.
In a randomized, placebo-controlled trial of 152 people with moderate Alzheimer’s, a ketone agent extracted from medium-chain triglyceride oil was given as a medication along with a normal diet. The degree of memory improvement was significant in the study group who had genetic indications of Alzheimer’s and was positively correlated with the blood levels of the ketone agent.
Scientists now agree that dietary alterations play a large role in neurological diseases. We who are at risk for developing neurological disorders may prefer to take a proactive role in health management. A diet of whole foods including sufficient protein, natural sources of carbohydrate and fat while eliminating processed foods and refined sugars is a sound nutrition practice that can be adopted.